Decentralized Ledger Technologies (DLT) promise a profoundly positive transformation in public service. To turn promise into reality, Demos Helsinki is contributing to an EU-funded project called TOKEN. How can Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) drive more open, transparent, trusted, and efficient public services? One of three shifts required for societal trust-based transformation through DLT, identified in the TOKEN Vision Paper, is the shift from transparency to accountability.
By Claire Shaw
One of the most often touted reasons for integrating Distributed Ledger Technology into public services is the opportunities it creates for transparency. While not easily defined, transparency in public services typically refers to making “reliable, relevant and timely information about the activities of government…available to the public”. When government data, processes, and decisions are transparent, they are more easily observed by citizens, the media, and watchdogs.
From transparency to accountability
DLT-based solutions offer increased transparency in systems, operations, and processes. By nature, they create immutable and traceable tracks that can be made available to other actors (citizens, journalists, other public entities). When designed with transparency in mind, DLT can allow consistent monitoring (for instance how public funds are spent) and ensure that records are not tampered with (like in the cases of land registries and voter registration).
However, transparency in the public sector cannot be viewed as an addition to public services; it must be integral to the structures and processes within government. This is where the “shift” comes in:
The focus must move from transparency for its own sake, to transparency as a tool for accountability. Blockchain and other forms of DLT do not produce accountability: they create opportunities for accountability by offering transparency. Accountability allows citizens to hold the government responsible for their actions, good or bad.
This requires the implementation of transparency in government and also measures to ensure that citizens are aware of the existing avenues of accountability and what to do with the available information. Accountability in government takes form in multiple ways: the most common is voting, but it also includes awareness-raising through protests and media, participating in town hall meetings, or contacting local ombudsmen and government representatives.
1. Develop accountability structures
Accountability in public services can be promoted in several ways. First, accountability structures must be developed on top of DLT based solutions. Accountability must be embedded throughout the entire government ecosystem, creating clear lines of responsibility and ownership. It must also be ensured that all levels, from civil servants to policymakers, have a shared understanding of accountability and of industry standards.
2. Easily record data in DLT
Second, policies must be reformed to ease the use of data recorded in DLT, allowing for more transparency and accountability in processes such as public spending. This requires the definition of standards in policy and the development of foundational infrastructure to support the use of DLT within and across ministries and governments. This can be, as suggested by the European Commission, for example, a pan-European framework.
3. Make the information accessible
Finally, citizens must understand the accountability structures in place and know how to access and understand the information available to them. This requires efforts by the government to raise awareness on new and existing accountability structures, as well as ensuring the design of these structures is accessible and understandable for all members of society. Additionally, unfamiliarity with new technologies like blockchain may reduce public acceptance. This challenge must be addressed when making changes to public services. Ultimately, transparency and accountability only matter when their structures are clear, understandable, and accessible.
Accountability will be key for governments
“As govtech grows in Europe, accountability will be key for both government stability and the sustainability of the sector.”
Tanya Filer, researcher, University of Cambridge
As previously stated, this shift is not a call to replace transparency, but rather to use the transparency offered by DLT in an intentional and meaningful manner – a necessary starting point to build up accountability. Technology is never the complete answer; it is a tool that can be used to support the building up of accountability in public services and, eventually, to contribute to the trust held between citizens and their government.
This article was first published on the TOKEN website and has been slightly edited for clarity. Launched in January 2020, TOKEN (Transformative Impact Of BlocKchain tEchnologies iN Public Services) is an EU funded project whose ultimate goal is to develop an experimental ecosystem to enable the adoption of Distributed Ledger Technology and to prove its value, via highly replicable Use Cases, as a driver for the transformation of public services.
TOKEN has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under Grant Agreement No. 825268.
Feature Image: Norbert Kundrak / Unsplash