Building a blockchain Britain in Bloxwich, because …?

Building a blockchain Britain in Bloxwich, because …?

Eddie Hughes, the Tory MP for North Walsall in the West Midlands, seems like a sound guy.

A great guy, even, if his Facebook followers are anything to go by:

Thing is, great guys don’t always have very well thought-out ideas.

Mr Hughes has just written a paper published by FREER — a new initiative from conservative think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs — called “Unlocking Blockchain: Embracing new technologies to drive efficiency and empower the citizen”, which was pitched to us as “ an enthusiastic call for government to embrace the opportunities of blockchain and associated technologies”.

It’s enthusiastic, alright. Here is an excerpt from the paper:

Blockchain and associated technologies offer an unrivalled opportunity to begin to review and redesign the UK’s data systems. Whitehall and public services could be fundamentally rewired to empower citizens and better serve their needs. We should encourage digital entrepreneurship. We must tackle the trust deficit. By introducing a departmental target for blockchain efficiency savings, we can begin to generate a digital dividend to pass on to tax payers or to reinvest. And we can use a mix of classical liberal values and new technologies to strengthen individual freedom and improve the life chances of all. We must harness the energy of entrepreneurial spirit created by these new world-changing technologies to ensure the future is freer. By engaging now, and recognising blockchain’s potential, we can ensure it is used by the state to empower individuals, and to afford us real control over our own data.

A fundamental rewiring of public services. Tackling the trust deficit. A digital dividend. No shortage of buzz phrases here. But there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of meaning behind them.

You might wonder, as we did, where this blockchain idea came from — Mr Hughes was only voted into parliament for the first time last June, but he previously worked in the construction and housing sectors. So we called him up. Did he have a secret side-project in coding or cryptography? Not so much:

I’m just a Brummie bloke who kept hearing about blockchain, read a bit about it, and thought: this is interesting stuff. So I came up with this idea: blockchain for Bloxwich.

(Bloxwich is one of the two major towns in Mr Hughes’s constituency, which also happens to be one of the poorest Conservative areas in the country. Was there a reason for Bloxwich being a particular target, we asked? Nope, it’s just that “Blockchain for Wals

all North wouldn’t have the same ring to it.” )

Mr Hughes is a refreshingly candid and straight-talking MP. He admitted to not having technological expertise, acknowledged that blockchain might be all just a lot of hype, and even said it was possible he hadn’t really understood it:

Maybe in some ways I have not completely understood what the application could be, but the idea that transactions are more secure, auditable and unchangeable could have applications for my constituents. 

But if he’s not that sure about it, it doesn’t seem like a great idea that he’s just written a 36-page paper on the subject and has written think-pieces to be published today by the Telegraph and Huffington Post. Confusion breeds confusion, and there’s plenty of that already in this space.

Along with the paper, Mr Hughes is making several proposals, including for a “public-facing Chief Blockchain Officer” who could coordinate government work on blockchain across different departments and ministries, and for a “blockchain departmental target”: “a longterm aim for government departments to make a 1 per cent efficiency saving by embracing blockchain and other associated innovative technologies”. (The verb “to embrace” comes up in various forms 14 times in the paper.)

The 1-per-cent efficiency savings sound nice. So where did that figure come from, we asked? Again, we got a pretty honest answer: nowhere particularly rigorous, although “one of the things that would sit behind it would be comparisons to the Estonian model”. (Estonia has reportedly managed to save 2 per cent of its GDP per year in salaries and expenses by digitising its processes, and uses a digital identity system for ID cards called KSI Blockchain which has generated a lot of excitement. But as Attack of the 50-Foot Blockchain author David Gerard has pointed out, this was a rebrand — the KSI system was started in 2007 and also, it doesn’t even use blockchain.)

You can’t really blame Mr Hughes for being what he calls a “crazy bullish enthusiast” about blockchain technology when there is so much literature out there that propagates the idea that this is world-saving technology, without actually explaining how it will work.

Nor is Mr Hughes the only one in government getting excited about blockchain. Fellow Tory MP Grant Shapps was to be found at a blockchain conference in London the week before last delivering a speech called Building a Blockchain Britain. And Theresa May, after Mr Hughes enthused about his blockchain paper at prime minister’s questions, suggested he distribute the paper to all members of parliament.

It’s almost as if politicians didn’t have anything else to worry about.

Related links:
Blockchain insiders tell us why we don’t need blockchain – FT Alphaville

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