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Illinois taps blockchain to spur government efficiencies

At the National Association of State CIOs mid-year conference, Illinois CTO  Mike Wons spoke with GCN on the potential for using blockchain in the public sector and the state’s five use cases in development at different government agencies. 

Wons’ answers below have edited for length and clarity.

What piqued your interest in bringing blockchain into the public sector?

Wons: Blockchain to me is our next interoperable platform that needs to be put into place to really enable effective business and citizen electronic interactions.  We started a working group about a year ago with people who were interested.  At first, it was the first the technology people, but we brought folks together from all of the agencies and started talking about the capabilities. 

A college student  sent me a one-page paper  about how she believed that blockchain could fundamentally change the way that Illinois is perceived among the states and change the way that we transact business.  She saw Illinois becoming the blockchain center of the universe.  It was interesting, so I had her come and have a conversation with the team. 

What has your department done to spur the use of blockchain?

Wons: On Nov. 30, we appointed our first business owner liaison for blockchain, Jennifer O’Rourke, who also is the assistant deputy director at the Illinois Department of Commerce’s Office of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Technology.  We have a working group that gets together every week and another group that includes individuals outside the government that meets monthly to look at the blockchain challenge and the emerging aspects of it. 

On Nov. 30, we also put out a request for information to help us figure out how to use blockchain to improve services for citizens.  At the same time, we put out a request for comment on financial regulatory guidance associated with blockchain and cryptocurrency.  As we got to the beginning of the year, we had a good idea of what the industry thinks about regulation and what blockchain can do for the public sector.

What ideas did you get?

Wons: We had 21 responses from the RFI that had good data points, but  we didn’t learn anything new from the RFIs other than the space was emerging and it was hot.  The responses  talked a lot about the potential and future, but there weren’t a lot of practical use cases.  So we brought agency directors together to talk about how blockchain could improve services for citizens.  We came up with 25 use cases that we thought could fundamentally improve services at a lower price point for government. 

We worked to narrow down the use cases and selected five of them as proofs of concept to deliver this year.  Our first project addresses property deed management.  The second is looking at credentialing for students transcripts.  The third one is a blockchain for health care providers that validates that they are PII certified and they can provide the services.  The process of a provider getting certified in the state and them getting reimbursed is a long, structured process. This will allow the activity to occur electronically through blockchain technology.  The fourth project will create a clean energy marketplace using blockchain for energy credits.  The fifth one is for vital records -- we are thinking of putting birth certificates on the blockchain, making them available forever electronically.

What did you learn from the Delaware Blockchain Initiative?

Wons: We did model some of our activity after Delaware’s program to support blockchain use, but we have taken it to a deeper level with this transaction-based approach. For us, blockchain is the next generation of the internet.  It is essentially an interoperability platform to work with trusted partners through distributed networks to complete transactions at a lower cost, which fundamentally changes our activities. 

When citizens interact with government today, they are filing out a piece of paper or submitting a form online, but they don’t know where it goes.  Through leveraging blockchain, we can create a common, stored digital record that can be securely managed through a core process whether it is inside or outside the government.

Lawmakers in Illinois have struggled to pass a budget for close to two years to fund state government. How does the lack of funding impact your technology work?

Wons: Not having a budget has actually been good for us because it forced people to start using technology.  For example, previously we were spending $20 million to mail out notifications to citizens to renew their license plate stickers and suddenly we didn’t have the budget for that.  So we put the renewal process online, which enabled a much cleaner interaction with citizens because they no longer need to fill out paperwork and send it back to us. They are able to get notifications and reminders via email, which has improved our service. 

Not having a budget forced us to become more efficient so it has been sort of a godsend.  We don’t want to stay in this position forever because we realize that there are things that still need to be resolved with our debt.  In state government, there are political issues as well with legislative pressures, but despite that we have been able to do some significant things around mobile initiatives and blockchain. 

What do you hope to achieve this year with your blockchain use cases?

Wons: The first use case that we are working on is in partnership with Cook County and focuses on property deeds through blockchain. The initial results have been really positive, so we hope to introduce this in the next week or two into the actual production environment.  Our blockchain pilot is unique in that we are doing five different proofs of concept with five business groups using five different types of technologies so we are really trying to plant the seeds and see which of these products will help us to move forward. 

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at sfriedman@gcn.com or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.


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