Once a Gadget Zone regular, Jon Wilcox has switched allegiance to our sister site PublicTechnology.net, but returns this week to fill us in about iPadgate, the gadget scandal that has rocked Leicester City Council.
Do you want an iPad? Well, you could always become a local councillor… if you can cope with the flack from the media and your constituents...
The recent goings on at Leicester City Council and its trial of four iPads to assess their potential to improve councillors' productivity at first seems like a typical summer silly season story. But on closer inspection there are more serious implications.
Local newspapers initially reported that councillors were considering spending £40,000 to provide one of Apple’s tablets to every councillor to increase mobility, productivity, and save money on printing costs. But when the device in question is one of the most highly prized ‘luxury’ gadgets on the market – and a near status symbol to boot – then cynical eyes were always going to be inevitably cast. It didn’t help that the when the story broke, the council had just announced it would cut staff numbers by up to 1,500 people over the next few years.
The council has defended the experiment energetically, revealing not only that it is only trialling four iPads, but that it was keeping an open mind over whether other, cheaper devices could do the same job. But constituents posting on councillors' were resolutely sceptical. One commented: "Everyone else who wants an iPad has to go out and buy one with their hard earned cash. Why should you as councillors get one with public money, that should be put to better use, by actually spending money on improving public services, and not making cut-backs? Your reasons for trying to justify getting one make you sound like a spoilt child.. so why don't you just ask Santa for one?"
Is Leicester’s problem just bad timing, or is the more worrying feature of this the perception of taxpayers that the authorities should make do with the technology they’ve already got? Shouldn’t councillors already have a BlackBerry or an iPhone, for instance? Or a laptop?
The council’s Tory opposition leader Ross Grant didn't do himself many favours when he tried to rationalise the expenditure. It wasn't just greater mobility, functionality and productivity alone that justified the new technology, he said, adding: “As a package I think iPads work."
Becomeing the focus of national news coverage has done the trial no good at all. I'd be surprised if a full roll out occurs now. One of the four councillors bailed out and cancelled her iPad trial. Grant described her reaction as retrograde, and said the project was both misunderstood and badly presented.
But if Apple’s latest toy did lead to greater levels of productivity among councillors and slash printing costs, wouldn’t that make it worthwhile? Perhaps some quarters of the electorate are *ever so slightly* green - but with envy.
All that leads rather neatly onto our very own ICT for Recovery campaign, the whole point of which is illustrate that intelligently focused technology spending can help the public sector achieve ‘more with less’
But in order to kick start and sustain economic recovery, there will need to be technological investment. None of that can happen if the electorate – and outraged Daily Mail readers - gets on their high horse whenever politicians attempt tech innovation.