Government tech chief asks can slates replace printers and paper?
At a time when government is looking to save money wherever it can, a plan to issue Apple iPads to government workers would seem likely to create tabloid outrage.
But giving tablet devices to public workers could actually end up saving the taxpayer cash, according to the man whose job it is to promote new ways of using technology in Whitehall.
Mark O'Neill, head of innovation and delivery at the Government Digital Service (a part of the Cabinet Office), is examining whether sharing information via tablets might prove to be cheaper than printing it on paper.
O'Neill will feed his findings into work being carried out by the Cabinet Office to determine what computing technology - tablets, smartphones, PCs - the government should issue to public sector workers in future.
Head of the UK government skunkworks Mark O'Neill is considering whether it would be more efficient to replace printers with tablets in some areas of governmentPhoto:James Martin/CNET
In his previous role as CIO of the Department for Communities and Local Government, O'Neill calculated that if he got rid of all of the department's printers and gave staff iPads instead, the savings on printing costs would pay for the tablets in less than 18 months.
PCs - the tech mainstay of the civil service for decades - also match up poorly against tablets on the cost front according to O'Neill, who said a PC draws 100 times the power of a charging smartphone or iPad.
"There are some really good examples where people are saving money and a real difference is being made to people's quality of life using new technology like iPads or tablet computers in general," O'Neill told silicon.com at the Govnet Efficient ICT, Greener Government 2011 conference last week.
Paper vs iPads
His team is now looking at is the how various office tools - including paper - compare in today's workplace.
"We spend an awful lot of money on paper, and it has an environmental impact and footprint. If you do the sums and it works out cheaper and more effective to use some sort of tablet - be that Android, iPad or Windows 8 - then it's worth looking at how those figure stack up.
"We need to find a sensible route between blue sky thinking and what people actually need," he said.
Central government spends about £104m on printing each year, according to a 2010 efficiency review. Meanwhile the cost of...
...issuing a £380 iPad to each of the 1.16 million people that official figures say work in central government works out at about £440m - giving a payback of more than four years. Of course, not every worker in central government would need a tablet, while bulk buying deals and declining tablet prices will likely change the cost equation further.
A better print infrastructure?
Louella Fernandes, associate director of print services and solutions with analyst house Quocirca, said that replacing printers with tablets could save the government money - but that there is plenty of scope for the government to improve efficiency by moving to a "much more up to date print infrastructure" before going down that route.
"I'm sure there are cost benefits of moving to tablets but I think there's a lot more work to do before they get to that stage," she said.
The government has committed itself to reducing the number of printers it uses and replacing those that are left with more efficient combined printer, scanner, copier, fax devices in order to meet energy efficiency targets set out under the Greening Government ICT report.
Government might also still find itself having to print documents even it it does move departments over to using tablets, due to legal and regulatory requirements for a paper trail, Fernandes said.
As much as tablets might be perceived as a luxury rather than a necessity, an increasing number of businesses have begun issuing them to staff alongside or instead of PCs, such as SAP and British Airways. Meanwhile, in the Houses of Parliament both the Commons and the Lords have allowed members to use tablets to store parliamentary papers and committee documents in place of paper bundles.
O'Neill, who also heads the UK government skunkworks team, drew a parallel between a reluctance to consider giving civil servants modern technology like tablets, and objections to public sector workers being given telephones in past decades.
"I'm old enough to remember when there were fierce debates about whether people in the public sector should actually have telephones - when people asked: 'Was there a business case for people to have telephones?' - which seems crazy now.
"It was seen as 'Why would you do that? People would spend their time on the phones - people would phone their friends and family. Why do people need a phone we have memos and minutes?'."
It's now time for the public sector to ask "What are the tools that people need in order to do their jobs?" now and in future, O'Neill said.