'Blockchain SAVED my Quango'
Taxpayers splash £100m+ to save doomed agency
Picture the scene. A father is returning home to his family, his face etched with anxiety, and darkened by shame. The family sits expectantly around an empty dinner table.
“We’re so hungry,” the children cry out.
“I’m… I’m so sorry,” the father replies. “My funding application to explore the potential of a distributed ledger in the maritime industry did not come through.”
The youngest daughter starts to weep, clutching her teddy.
Now imagine this catastrophic domestic scene being played out at the homes of venture capitalists, and digital innovation consultants, and in the conservatories of think tank “policy entrepreneurs”, all across Britain.
Thankfully, it didn’t come to pass; the Chancellor’s heart isn’t made of stone. Last week, it melted. Austerity will soon be over, Philip Hammond promised the House of Commons, and more money will be thrown at the neediest groups in society.
And none can be more needy, surely, than the Digital Catapult, whose chief executive Jeremy Silver trousered £200,000 in salary and pension benefits in his first year in the job (see accounts on Companies House) - even more than the Chancellor himself received. The Catapult is to receive the lion’s share of £115m of taxpayer’s money, some of it to explore Der Blockchain.
As the government explained in the Budget Red Book (pdf):
Distributed ledger technologies (DLT), such as blockchain, could revolutionise how information is recorded, protected, stored and shared, transforming financial markets, supply chains and public services. To test their potential, the Digital Catapult will run a series of DLT Field Labs*, working with businesses, investors, and regulators in a range of areas, including in construction and the management of goods in ports.
For the quango, it's a remarkable resurrection - the greatest comeback since Lazarus. Just a year ago, the Digital Catapult was placed on death row. A report by Ernst & Young into the Catapult Network, part of Gordon Brown-era Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) concluded the Catapult scheme had been a waste of time and money: the Catapults were “unlikely to have provided benefits and value for money envisaged at the outset.” (pdf)
Three of the seven had looked particularly dubious: the Transport Systems catapult, and two waffle-heavy quangos: the “Future Cities” Catapult and the Digital Catapult. Of all the Catapults, the latter had the most dubious purpose. It had botched the execution of the only good idea it had - the Copyright Hub. Things looked grim. The three were given weeks to justify their existence and come up with a business plan.
But something magical happened. That magic, we now know, is blockchain. ®
“Ports” are a curious application of blockchain, you might think. But then you may not have been paying attention. That's a Thing now thanks to the tireless work of Eddie Hughes MP (Con, Walsall North), who developed a passion for the blockchain - despite confessing he didn't really know what it was, or how it worked.
“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.”
He published a paper advocating its broad adoption. He asked questions in Parliament. The Transport Catapult - also marked for death - joined in, publishing the unforgettable "Are You Decentralised Yet?" (pdf)
Hughes identified a vacuum in public life that should be urgently filled - with the creation of a "public-facing Chief Blockchain Officer".
Ignorance is no obstacle to surfing the zeitgeist in 2018. Say the word "blockchain" often enough, and magic happens.
* The Reg asked how success would be defined in the Field Labs and were told: "Success would be identifying how these technologies can be applied, and developing a user case to drive their further adoption."