The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) has told a Senate Estimates committee that it is investigating the potential of blockchain as a direct request from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
"The prime minister in fact wrote to our minister and asked us to have a look at blockchain, which kind of evolved into this particular piece of work," DTA CDO Peter Alexander told the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee on Monday night.
The DTA was allocated AU$700,000 under the 2018-19 federal Budget to explore the use of blockchain, but the funding is expected to cover merely the costs of staff looking into the distributed ledger technology, rather than specific projects.
"We actually costed that just with the application of the team staff -- so we're absorbing that funding," Alexander said. "We are doing some work on it, we have a team of people who will do that work, and we costed the staff effort."
Alexander said the DTA has "quite a good experience in blockchain", particularly from a "couple" of staff, who are expected to guide the department's blockchain investigation.
In addition to the directive being driven by Turnbull, Alexander said the DTA had been approached on multiple occasions by ministers and officers across government that were interested in the technology, as well as vendors pushing their solution.
Alexander said vendors had been spruiking the opportunities blockchain presents and "trivialising" how it could "solve every problem" the DTA had.
"I guess the task is pulling together the experience across government, on blockchain, to say fundamentally what is it and is there a value to this technology," Alexander explained. "In a world where blockchain is new, it is not standardised, and it has clearly some value outside cryptocurrency -- there is clearly some value to the blockchain and some of the components of that technology or technology set to look at it to determine what the value is and how we can use it."
Alexander said the DTA has commenced a piece of work with the Commonwealth Bank and a "number of players" to have a look at how blockchain might work in the financial services sector, as well as the "programmable currency" component of it to determine whether there is some value in that for the government.
Acting DTA CEO Randall Brugeaud told the CeBIT Australia conference in Sydney last week that one of the initiatives the agency was looking into was the use of blockchain for Centrelink welfare payment delivery.
"Specifically we've been asked to look at whether we could use it for welfare payments, but we're additionally looking at it for a range of other things," Alexander added on Monday. "Such as for the settlement of trades, cargo management, and even the providence of open data sets to ensure that they are accurate.
"Some of those things are using technology and approaches from the '70s that aren't particularly new, so just working out what blockchain [is] and how it can work -- whether it really is a value proposition for government. Probably the biggest thing for blockchain is noting there is no international standard; it is a kind of the Wild West of technology."
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