THE BLOG

Unchained Maladie: Why We Should Blockchain All Future Chancellor Budgets

24/11/2017 11:16 GMT

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“The Budget is not about the economy. It’s about something much more important than that. It’s about YOU. Promise to raise a few billion by making efficiency savings and by clamping down on tax avoidance and loopholes. Skimp on the details, though. And if you’ve been in office a few years, never explain why you didn’t make these “savings” earlier. You can probably also get away with raising money by taxing banks or utilities. Nobody likes them” (The Purpose of a Budget speech, Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling blog).

“Britain is at the forefront of this technological revolution”, began Chancellor Hammond almost immediately in Wednesday’s Autumn Budget Speech. “We have some of the world’s best companies and a commanding position in a raft of tech and digital Industries that will form the backbone of the global economy of the future. We will harness this potential and turn it into the high pay high productivity jobs of tomorrow”. Highfalutin stuff.

There has been a lot of talk of technology recently mainly as a potential saviour to the ills of inefficiency and bad productivity in particular. A connected area I’ve been looking into is the new intelligent technology being trialled in some NHS hospitals. Blockchain-based systems in particular are being given serious consideration in improving service delivery, efficiency and patient engagement.

Elements of this are already in serious trials. Google’s DeepMind for instance, which has been working in partnership with London’s Royal Free Hospital, aims to create a special digital ledger that automatically records every interaction with patient data in a cryptographically-verifiable manner. This means any changes to, or access of, the data would be visible to one and al; joining up thinking, prognosis, action, aftercare, apparently seamlessly and efficiently, verifiably, incorruptibly. Apparently.

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I digress a little, but as I watched an increasingly excited Philip Hammond going through a spreadsheet of jokes and jingles about technology and our wider society - exchanging banter with the PM, I impatiently wondered if I should be jotting any of this stuff down. If only there was a way to transcribe, index and log the Chancellor’s speech in real time and assign specific values to specific policies and their nuances, store them digitally for other people to mull over and intelligent technology to contrast and compare to apparitions past, present and (potentially) future. Similar to the sort of system proposed for the health sector?

Voila! Why can’t we put the Chancellor on a blockchain ledger himself!

Since the 2008 global crash, scepticism of politicians, their doctrines, motives and mores has been rife. Public sector pay freezes, squeezed living, housing shortages, declines in specific jobs in specific regions and a new class of revolting Just About Managings (JAMS) have all come to the fore. Conversely, policy pronouncements, especially of the Budget kind (often indecipherably cumbersome that the layperson - most of us - cannot reconcile the context or impact) are routinely maligned.

In his blog immediately after the Chancellor’s speech, Colin Talbot, Professor of Government at Cambridge wrote of a modern malaise...

The Budget Speech, which is given so much weight and coverage, is actually often a misleading bit of theatre… It is confusing because chancellors of all-stripes regularly make announcements that confuse annual spending or tax…. over 2, 3, 5 or 10 years making it hard to make sense of their importance. This time the chancellor made multi-year announcements about housing especially which made the actual spending amounts sound much greater than they were”.

I hear you professor, so here is the plan! We need to hold our politicians and governments’ policy announcements to account more effectively; all that they say, all that they promise. We’ll index them into our own blockchain using the same intelligence planned for the public sector. We will chain policy documents and statements to the digital lining of specific politicians’ underpants and track developments all the way. We will close the disparity between bold policy statements, the delivery of the said statement and more importantly, the ownership and accountability thereafter. If you say it, you’ll own it. Even in your afterlife at that swish London paper. It. Will. Follow. You.

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“The world is on the brink of a technological revolution”, accepted Mr Hammond in his speech, “one that will change the way we work and live and transform our living standards for generations to come and we face a choice either we embrace the future, seize the opportunities which lie within our grasp and build on Britain’s great global success story. Whereas the party opposite turn inwards to the failed and irrelevant dogmas of the past, we choose the future. We choose to run towards change not away from it.”

Fighting talk Mr Hammond and how worthy of you to offer to carry the flag of this noble project. We will start a mini revolution of our own. No more clandestine policy making meetings of bygone times for which people were never held to account! No more!

From its inception, the whole thing had been either, at best, a mess-in-waiting or, at worst, a mess already apparent. It began, more or less, at a meeting in Downing Street between a prime minister who knew next to nothing about computers and a clutch of computer enthusiasts. It was wildly overambitious. It was far from being essential. No one ever seems to have subjected it to a serious -or even a back-of-the-envelope -cost-benefit analysis. The programme’s alleged benefits, even if they accrued, were going to be outweighed many times over by its exorbitant costs. No one ever thought to ask medical administrators and practitioners whether it was a high-priority project from their own point of view, or how they expected this ambitious new programme to mesh with their existing IT arrangements, or whether they would want to opt into the new system, or, come to that, whether they believed the proposed new system could actually be made to work.... Many billions of pounds, rather than mere millions, had been wasted,.... a frequently talked about figure was £20 billion, more than enough to build three dozen general hospitals” (Anthony King and Ivor Crewe distil a scene from the 1990s in the scathing The Blunders of Our Governments).

Over to you Mr Chancellor. We hope the farce isn’t with you.

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