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Blockchain: why the public sector must digitise post-COVID-19

Jack Fletcher, Regulatory Manager, R3
|Apr 17|magazine14 min read

When change occurs in public administration, it invariably happens because of an extraordinary event. 

Academic models of this differ, but all emphasise this central element: an event occurs, and a reaction takes place. Coronavirus is the most significant event of our generation. Now, how will policymakers react? 

The digitalisation of public administration processes has been going on for some time now. If blockchain is to be part of the next phase of this – or perhaps the most significant phase of this – why hasn’t it yet been embraced by the public sector? 

The answers vary internationally but typically boil down to change fatigue and credibility. The enterprise blockchain community can overcome the credibility question, and the consequences of the coronavirus crisis may render fatigue irrelevant as agenda setters take the reins and drive us towards change.  

In the coming years, we will see a flurry of enterprise blockchain deployments that produce compelling use-cases from which to demonstrate the technology’s capacity and credibility to the public sector. Of course, this is all coronavirus-dependent, but even if delayed, it will undoubtedly set a positive example for public policy.  

The issue of fatigue is an interesting and open one. After this crisis, will public administrations be so exhausted that change is pushed off or will they recognise, as many did after World War II, that the time is ripe to rebuild with something new? 

In a public policy sense, the indicators would suggest the latter. The public appetite for improvement is likely to be significant, the solutions will be available, and governments that have suddenly ballooned in size will need to consider how and where they deflate. This will be a period of fast-moving reflection where the agenda will be seized by reformers, motivated by the problems that we are facing today. 

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Healthcare systems are at the forefront of today’s battle against coronavirus and will be a likely focus for reformers in the years to come. There is no doubt that medical professionals across the globe are responding courageously to the unprecedented challenges they are facing. What will prove unacceptable to reformers and the public alike, are the faltering methods with which they are being asked to carry out their jobs and the workarounds administrators are having to put into place to meet the unprecedented challenge. 

One good example is the speed of recruitment into hospitals, which is held back by the regulatory credential checks that hospitals must carry out. The issue is clearly not with the need for these checks to take place, but the speed at which they are carried out. 

In the US, it takes on average four to six months to recruit and onboard a new medical practitioner. In this environment that is simply unfeasible and fails to respond to the situation. In order to cope, medical boards such as the Massachusetts State Medical Board have relaxed the rules to allow credentialed physicians to practice medicine at any licensed hospital in the state without further checks. This is undoubtedly a sensible piece of administration but does highlight the issue within the normal running of the system. Once the dust has settled, public policy reformers would do well to look at this space and use technology to solve its challenges. 

For example, a blockchain solution can allow for a network of hospitals to instantly verify and request credentials of licensed professionals from one another. Such a solution would allow hospitals to remain in regulatory compliance and permanently reduce the administrative burden that has been only temporarily relieved. 

For practitioners, such as locum doctors, it could also provide a more flexible system, which allows them to practice at different hospitals with greater ease. For administrators, it is a tool that can help them respond to staff shortages as they happen and recruit trusted staff. 

Critically, however, a solution for the healthcare sector must be deployed on a purpose-built enterprise blockchain platform that avoids the privacy issues inherent in public platforms such as Ethereum and Bitcoin and delivers the scalability and security that is crucial for this complex industry.

Distributed platform solutions aren’t a catch-all solution for every challenge in the public sector, but this is undoubtedly a use-case for which they are perfectly suited. In the coming months, the blockchain community must help public administrations understand the options they have in developing solutions to policy areas that have proved a hindrance during this crisis. Temporary solutions have been implemented but permanent ones can be found in digitalisation. Blockchain will be an essential component of that new world. 

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