Blockchain is attracting increasing attention as a new technology capable of ‘revolutionising’ governance, both in the private or public sector. In simple terms, blockchain is seen as an alternative to the way information is (securely) stored and rules are enforced, regardless of whether those rules are agreed in a contract, or result from legislation or administrative decision-making.
Some examples include the governance of illegal agreements to distort competition (cartels) (see eg this paper by Thibault Shrepel), or the management of public procurement (eg in this paper by Hardwick, Akram and Markantonakis, or these thoughts by Bertrand Maltaverne). These examples explore how the technology allows for the creation of ‘self-executing’ sets of rules that would be capable of overcoming so far intractable governance problems (mostly, about trust: eg among the cartellists, or in public officials).
This could create opposite effects in the governance of public procurement. For instance, this could make the detection and correction of bid rigging very difficult (if not impossible) or, conversely, allow for a corruption-free procurement architecture. Therefore, the impact of the technology (in principle neutral) on existing governance systems can ultimately be seen as an ‘arms race’ between the private and public sector as, ultimately, the one that gets ahead will be able to exploit the technology to its advantage.
This justifies some calls for both investment in new technologies by the public sector (as the private sector has its own incentives for investment), and regulation of private (and public) use of the technology. I have no objection to either of these recommendations. However, I think there is an important piece of the puzzle that tends to go missing in this type of analysis.
Indeed, most of this discussion brushes over the important limitations of smart contracts. These limitations are both linked to the fact that the computational logic underpinning smart contracts can only operate on the basis of complete information/rules, and that the computing power necessary to implement smart contracts can currently only process extremely simple contracts.
The latter issue may be dismissed as a mere ‘a matter of time’, but given that it has been estimated that it is currently only possible to create a blockchain-based procurement process capable of holding 700-word-long tender documentation (Hardwick, Akram and Markantonakis, 2018: 6), there seems to be a very long road ahead, even accepting Moore’s Law on the growth of computational power.
This first issue, though, is more difficult to set aside. As rightly stressed by Davidson, De Filippi and Potts in their ‘must read’ paper, ‘the obvious problem is that blockchains only work on complete contracts, whereas most in-the-world firms ... are largely (entirely?) made of incomplete contracts'; ‘a blockchain is an economic world of complete contracts’ (2016: 9).
In my view, this should raise significant doubts as to the likely extent of the ‘revolution’ that blockchain can create in complex settings where the parties structurally face incomplete information. Procurement is clearly one such setting. There are a few reasons for this, my top three being that:
First, the structural incompleteness of information in a setting where the public buyer seeks to use the public tender as a mechanism of information revelation cannot be overstated. If it is difficult for contracting authorities to design ‘sufficiently objective’ technical specifications and award criteria/evaluation methods, the difficulties of having to do so under the strictures of computational logic are difficult to imagine.
Second, the volume of entirely digital procurement (that is, the procurement of entirely digital or virtual goods and services) is bound to remain marginal, which creates the additional problem of connecting the blockchain to the real world, with all the fallibility and vulnerability that so-called oracles bring with them.
Third, blockchain technology in itself creates an additional layer of transaction costs—at least at the stage of setting up the system and ‘migrating’ to a blockchain-based procurement mechanism. Bearing in mind the noticeable and pervasive difficulties in the much simpler transition to e-procurement, this also seems difficult to overstate.
Therefore, while there will clearly be improvements in specific (sub)processes that can be underpinned by blockchain instead of other cryptographic/cybersecurity solutions, I remain quite skeptical of a blockchain-based revolution of procurement governance. It may be that I still have not advanced enough in my research to identify the 'magic technological solution’ that can do away with transaction costs, so any pointers would be most appreciated.