iPads in government: Time to stop worrying and just do it

Summary:iPads are harder to find in Whitehall than hens' teeth. If the UK government really wants to deliver on its digital by default agenda, it's going to have to shake up its IT buying habits.

Over the last two years, the combined total of iPads bought by the most high-profile central government organisations numbers less than 400.

From the Home Office to HM Revenue and Customs, most tablet rollouts – if you can call them that – are in single figures. Of the more than 20 organisations contacted by ZDNet, only three have bought 50 or more of the Apple tablets, and only one over 100.

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Whitehall has so far held out against any large-scale tablet deployments. Image: Shutterstock

Should we be surprised? Perhaps not. Tablets are still regarded as flashy toys by many and any attempt to swap the beige-box desktop for a more up-to-date slate would be met with confused anger by the average voter. Doubtless procuring Apple tablets , and paying the cost premium that goes with them, would only serve to whip up the tech-fearing sections of the popular press into yet more extremes of manufactured rage.

The tablet inertia common in central government is perhaps not surprising, then – but that does not mean it's excusable.

Digital by default?

The coalition government is often described as being more tech-savvy that any that preceded it. True or not, the 'digital by default' agenda that it's pushing – whereby government services are delivered online wherever possible – will only gather pace as time passes. Under the Civil Service Reform Plan (PDF), published earlier this year, each central government  department is obliged to become "digital by default, in its skills, its style, how it communicates and how it enables service users to interact with it", and publish plans on how they intend to do so by the end of this year.

It highlights the disparity between Whitehall's ambitions, and the reality of the everyday tech it uses. "Digital by default needs to become a reality, not just a buzz phrase," says the plan – yet IE6 remains the default browser in some central government departments.

The iPad is another symptom of the phenomenon: the public sector regularly releases iOS apps for the citizenry, but does it give civil servants the kit that would allow them to use the same apps? Apparently not.

"The civil service does not always have the right capabilities in the right place to do what is needed. Digital skills are lacking in an organisation committed to becoming digital by default," says the Civil Service Reform Plan. When just one in every 500 HMRC workers has an iPad, one has to wonder how that will change. (Apple's iPads are not the only tablets, of course, but I suspect there are even fewer non-iPads slates in the corridors of power).

Without ready access to some newer technology, how can civil servants be expected to discover the new ways of working tablets can engender, or the efficiencies that they can bring? How can they work out how far government services can be made digital by default, when one of the most obvious tools for accessing such services is harder to find than hens' teeth?

It's tempting to highlight that the digital by default agenda services the needs of people like iPad users – often at the more tech-savvy end of the UK public – rather than those who have to deal with out of date, or low-end, tech. Thanks to the typical way IT is procured in government, the civil service is likely very able to empathise with the latter section of the population, but not the former.

Procurement

Is Apple interested in the public-sector market? There are signs that that might be the case: it's offered small price reductions to some public-sector buyers.

Without ready access to some newer technology, how can civil servants be expected to discover the new ways of working tablets can engender?

Most IT procurement in Whitehall goes through large framework deals, or as part of outsourcing agreements – not a market that Apple could get into, even if it wanted to. By offering small discounts here and there to the public sector for small-scale pilots and test devices, Apple can get its tablets into the hands of public-sector users under the radar.

A similar trend – BYOD – has seen the iPad gain a degree of momentum in the enterprise, with users circumventing traditional IT buying by bringing their own iPads into the office. It's a strategy that some government CIOs are actively warming to, potentially giving Apple another route into government should allowing BYOD become government policy.

Not every civil servant will have the money, or the inclination, to buy their own iPad. That doesn't mean they shouldn't have access to them, however. If the government is serious about digital by default, it needs to make sure Whitehall has the tools to see how, and how far, the agenda can be delivered.

Topics: Government : UK, Apple, iPad, Mobility, Tablets, United Kingdom

About

Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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