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

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.

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.


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

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  • Do we need it? Is it secure? Nahhh.... but hey, Lets buy it anyway!

    Where's the case study? Did you now that tablet owners in the UK are viewed as snobs (http://www.zdnet.com/blog/igeneration/the-shame-of-owning-an-ipad/15356)?

    I expect more from a Zdnet article. No research at all... seems biased...
    • Definately a WASTE OF MONEY

      If you want to move to tablets buy W8 tablets. Run all youre existing windows apps which ipad cant do. Connect to your existing networks no problem. Better and less expensive hardware choices, pen input options, full MS Office apps, works with flash websites, etc. etc. Now is the time for the few ipads that ware already there to be sold second hand and replaced with W8 tablets/hybrids
      Johnny Vegas
  • iPads NOT needed

    There is no pressing need for tablets in Whitehall, as much our over-paid public sector executives do like to have new toys.

    Importantly, if the need did arise, Windows 8 or Android tablets would be a superior choice for numerous reasons.
    Tim Acheson
    • Back Into A Corner

      That's the way to run a business / government agency: back yourself into a single source supply chain.

      Win or Android is a much better current solution.
  • When

    people are losing their jobs, cuts in public spending and so many young people out of work I don't think the government would set the right example by handing out shiny new iPads to their MPs. Besides, there are security risks including a high risk of theft.
  • Security

    I'd go with the most secure platform, this is government, after all.

    Do you really want your state secrets hacked by the commies?
    Susan Antony
  • iPads in government: Time to stop worrying and just do it

    Perhaps they can't find a use for the iPads or any tablets. It makes sense as its just a buzz word right now with no real use. People have them but when asked why they bought them they don't know why.
    Loverock Davidson-
  • BYOD

    BYOD will be dead this time next year. It is too expensive to support multiple OS platforms and worry about the security of all of them.
    Things will shift back to BlackBerries when the new platform is rolled out next year.
    Susan Antony
  • Wow.

    The government had better not be wasting my money buying tablets when double the power is available for well under half the TCO in a desktop mini.
  • so many issues

    1. for the past 5 years there have been constant budget cut backs so where are these magical free tablets going to come from?

    2. and because of these budget cut backs govt agencies have not invested in mobile development so there are no wide spread mobile systems. Even contractors are getting the squeeze so less training/resources are available for this area which hasn't started generating big bucks.

    3. vast majority of govt mission critical systems are on mainframes and servers.

    4. apple products are not FIPS compliant (deal breaker right there, no need to argue anymore)

    5. Just do it??....have you ever worked with the govt in purchasing???? there is never a just do it. Do you know how many levels of ethics/procurement they have to go through alone for choosing a vendor, never mind the technology or product?
  • Apple cultists not want here.

    If anything will belong in enterprise or government it will be some version of W8 not a iOS that is not 100% desktop to mobile compatible.
    Portability in future enterprise activity is a requirement that should be fluid and not full of compromises.
  • What?

    Talk about nonsense.

    Digital does not mean exclusively tablet-based.
    Digital does not necessarily mean Mobile.
    Tablets are on the low-end of the computing scale, with phones being even lower.
    Desktops are at the high-end of the computing scale, notebooks/laptops at mid-high-end.

    It makes no sense at the governmental level to buy devices at a premium prices, when hardware at nearly half the price will do the job.

    Unreal, simply unreal.
  • They need toys to fill their days!

    of course ipads in govt. they already do nothing all day except waste tax dollars so why not pay so they can entertain themselves while they sit around and do nothing.
    joe nows
  • iPad is NOT the only tablet available - It's just the most expensive!

    Government is right (for once) if they are not buying overpriced incompatible iPads / iphone etc!

    If they must buy tablets they should consider Surface / Windows 8 tablets from a number of manufacturers!
  • I'm curious

    All that analysis into the need for digital devices in our government and it didnt even identify a pressing need for any more technology that they've already got. Is there an agenda here?

    We're only talking online access, and there's already plenty available. I dont see a need for tablets, let alone iPads, on top of that, it'd just be a waste of money. Those particular devices happen to be the most expensive too.

    BYOD in government also is about the worst idea I've heard in a long time. Security in both directions would just go out the window without an integrated policy that doesnt even exist for all the platforms there are. They had enough trouble with thumbdrives...