Should We Buy Our Councillors iPads?

Cambridge City Councillors are eyeing up the iPad and asking us if we'd like to buy them one.

Cambridge City Councillors are eyeing up the iPad and asking us if we’d like to buy them one. Photo derived from image by: Glenn Fleishman (licence)

It looks as if Cambridge City Councillors have been so impressed by the launch of the iPad, the latest desirable consumer electronics gadget from Apple, last week that they’re considering using our money to buy themselves a tablet computer each.

Writing on her blog, Liberal Democrat ruling group member Cllr Amanda Taylor says:

Along with other city councillors, I have been asked if I would like to have my council agenda and papers on a ‘tablet’, with the aim of saving paper.

We frequently have agenda papers of 500-1000 pages for some of our meetings, particularly the one I chair, where we scrutinize twelve different departments of the Council. An electronic tablet would certainly be lighter to carry, although I would still want to be able to scribble notes in the margin and use Post-It notes as navigation markers.

I’m all for councillors having access to the technology they need to do their job effectively. I’m not sure a tablet device is the way to go though, and certainly not if we’re paying. I’d worry that some councillors wouldn’t know what to do with it and it would be money wasted. I would have thought cheap laptops / netbooks would do the job councillors need done better than an iPad. I’d have thought it’d be faster to search and annotate documents using a device with a keyboard.

Conservative Councillor Chris Howell often takes his laptop to council meetings and uses it effectively during proceedings to search meeting papers (and news articles, and blogs) not only from the current meeting but from previous meetings. This certainly appears to assist him in being one of the more effective councillors on the council. A number of other councillors spend huge swathes of meetings playing with their smart phones.

Councillors already get an allowance, in 2009/10 the standard amount is £2,782 plus £417 for being a member of an area committee (as all councillors are). The leader of the council (Nimmo-Smith) gets an additional £10,443 and Executive Councillors (Blair, Reid, Cantrill, Smith, Smart and Pitt) each get an additional £8,346. I think the Executive councillors in particular are very generously remunerated for what they do. In addition to the allowances councillors can also claim expenses (which currently run to computer consumables, but not as-yet computers themselves). Councillor expenses are fairly minimal in Cambridge, amounting to just under £1500 for all forty-two of them to date for 2009/10; though the costs of perks – such as the car park passes, council purchased travel warrants, and refreshments at meetings are harder to get a grip of.

I think councillors ought be free to choose the technology which suits them best; be it pen and paper, a laptop, or even a tablet. I would expect councillors to equip themselves with the tools they need for the job out of their allowances, or independently. A decade or so ago it was commonplace among councils to allow councillors who wanted them to obtain computer equipment on expenses; I think that as the cost of equipment has come down such general schemes are no longer required. I don’t see any more reason why we ought buy our councillors tablet computers than we ought buy them suits or smart shoes! If any councillor was in real difficulty I wouldn’t object to the loan of some equipment from the council – we mustn’t make it so only the rich can afford to take part in running our city; but I really don’t think there’s a risk of that happening if we don’t buy our councillors the latest gadgets.

If you want to try and influence councillor’s allowances then you could respond to the current advert for members of the Independent Allowances Panel; I wouldn’t suggest you waste your time though as I’ve only seen the council ignore the panel’s advice.

I would like to see more council information available electronically; one particular problem currently is the fact planning applications are often decided at area committees by councillors who’ve not seen the full details of the applications. As councillors become more IT literate we might see more demands for financial information to be released in spreadsheet form; allowing our representatives to more easily get to grips with how they’re spending our money. The council ought focus on making information accessible; and not worrying about the particular device on which it might be read.

I’m concerned this suggestion of buying tablet computers is yet another example of public sector splurging on a last bout of excessive spending before public spending is eventually, as it will have to be, reigned in.

Cllr Amanda Taylor is using her blog to ask for advice on what she should do, having been asked if she’d like a tablet computer.

23 responses to “Should We Buy Our Councillors iPads?”

  1. The city council have just spent huge amounts refurbishing their meeting room with state of the art large flat screen TVs and a new sound system.

    I’ve seen the TVs used once in many months of meetings (though the idea they could be used for an item has been raised a number of times).

    I wouldn’t want to see more public money spent on technology which goes unused.

  2. The real problem would be that buying iPads (or netbooks, or laptops, or any piece of IT) for councillors wouldn’t be a case of the council going down to the Grand Arcade and spending £5000 on ten £500 iPads. There would be service contracts, training courses, health and safety assessments, you name it – all the paraphernalia which goes with any public sector IT investment and which keeps so much of the private sector very rich indeed. Others may have better figures than me, but I’ve heard it said that a plain old off-the-shelf Windows PC on someone’s desk in the NHS costs five figures *a year* to run over its working lifetime. The one on my desk barely runs into three figures.

    It would save a lot of time and money if more council information was made available electronically, but that’s the real aim. Giving councillors the latest gadgets is not going to have much impact on making that aim happen.

  3. Cllr Taylor mentions on her blog that she’s been offered the use of a tablet for council work, presumably by council officers, and you immediately present this as an example of wicked councillors lusting after the latest shiny gadgetry. The way you continually assume the worst about people (Liberal Democrats, at least) is really pretty tiresome. Do you have any actual evidence that this suggestion originated with councillors?

    “…Executive Councillors…each get an additional £8,346. I think the Executive councillors in particular are very generously remunerated for what they do.”

    You don’t mention that councillors have to pay income tax on these allowances. What methodology would you suggest for arriving at a reasonable rate?

  4. The Leader of the Council, Ian Nimmo-Smith, sat next to me in the public seating at the West-Central Area committee earlier this evening. I asked him if he thought his council’s plan to issue iPads would make front page news next week. I asked where the proposal had come from. He said he wasn’t sure but thought a tablet company had approached the council (not necessarily offering iPads, but perhaps another brand) offering some devices for free for a trial.

    When Cllr Sian Reid arrived he asked her if she knew where the proposal had originated. She said she had been talking to Simon Chubb, the City Council’s Climate Change Officer, about the amount of paper the council uses during meetings. Cllr Reid said Mr Chubb was investigating if the council’s climate change fund could be used to pay for a trial involving using tablet computers during meetings.

    The Council’s March 2009 Audit Letter states:

    Councillors have approved a £250,000 Climate Change Fund to support internal projects across the Council that will contribute to the reduction of the Council’s own carbon footprint and improve climate change risk management.

    Councillors have been struggling to find ways of spending this money; they appear to hope residents will be impressed by the mere existence of a hefty sum being allocated to Cambridge City Council’s fight against climate change. Tablet computers are just the latest in a series of odd potential uses thought up for the money.

    Cllr Reid appeared very exited about the possibility of getting her hands on a new gadget – explaining to me that they were the thing of the moment and in fashion right now and even mimed holding one in her hands. I suggested a laptop computer might be better, she disagreed saying she thought they would act as more of a barrier to communications in meetings than a tablet. I suggested different councillors might have different views on that and said I thought it would be more appriopriate if councillors bought their own gadgets. Cllr Reid then claimed that was what she was proposing all along.

  5. Hi Richard,
    I am amazed by the hype surrounding the iPad. I posted this on Amanda’s blog:

    I came to your blog via Richard Taylor’s site:
    I think that more IT might be useful to councillors like yourself, and also to the public, but would need to be more comprehensive than it is at present.

    For instance I attended the West/Central area committee on 04/02/10 that Richard referred to, and while most information on items on the agenda was available from the council website, a drawing of an item on the environmental improvements section was not available online, (nor for that matter as hardcopy at the meeting), nevertheless councillors were given copies. This is not very good, but is unfortunately all too common, my point is that everything needs to be available online, and in open-standard formats such as HTML and PDF, and editable formats e.g. ODT but NOT in Microsoft proprietary file formats, e.g. DOC, DOCX.

    Don’t get too excited by the iPad, time will tell how good it will turn out, at present it is only an (yet unavailable) fashionable item. You will need to wait for the (more expensive) 3G version, or you get NO INTERNET outside wireless hot-spots!

    Also, I have great misgivings over displays on most IT equipment, they are not able to display a page of A4 text clearly enough to read without zooming and panning. Something like the newly announced larger screen Kindle might be more appropriate for reading documents.

    In any case I think that it should be up to individuals to purchase their own devices rather than these being supplied and funded directly by the council. Try using a normal laptop as an experiment and see how you get on. You will need to get an Internet connection, so invest in a Mobile Internet usb dongle too.

  6. It is not true that the council “ignores” the advice of the independent remuneration panel and more than any public body “ignores” anything – just because something isn’t implemented doesn’t mean it hasn’t been considered.

    It is true that we do not always implement all their recommendations. In particular for several years they recommended large increases in allowances, to bring Cambridge City Council allowances up to levels similar to comparable councils, but every time councillors refused to vote the necessary budget and insisted on scaling down the panel’s recommendations.

  7. The Cambridge News Poll finished with 1129 people having voted, only 12.8% of those voting were favour of buying our councillors iPads, and a massive 87.2% were against the idea.

    Cambridge News Poll bar chart showing 1129 people having voted with 12.8% in favour and 87.2% against the idea  buying councillors iPads.

  8. Cambridge City Council has issued a press release which aims to set out the facts:

    It contains the paragraph:

    At least one Cambridge City Councillor already uses a device of their own for this purpose, and discussion of whether devices should be provided to other Councillors has appeared on the blogs of a private individual and a Cambridge City Councillor

    It also reveals that the council will be formally discussing the use of tablet and notepad computers at its Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee on the 29th of March 2010.

    Earlier I asked Cambridge City Council leader Ian Nimmo-Smith what he thought of the quality and accuracy of some of the apparantly exaggerated press coverage; he appeared quite rattled. His only response was that there had been no mention of iPads in any official council documents. Cllr Nimmo-Smith may not be remembering that his party doesn’t share reports with the press, opposition councillors, or public until a week before the meeting, even if they are available to ruling party members earlier. I don’t expect to formally be able to access the official council documents for about 5 weeks. All I had to go on was Cllr Taylor’s blog – which included a cartoon featuring iPads – and my conversations with Cllrs Reid and Nimmo-Smith in which iPads were discussed.

    The council press release has prompted further articles

    The ITPro article observes:

    Despite a report in the Cambridge News quoting David Roberts, head of policy and projects at the council, as saying the iPad “is definitely a possibility,” the council vehemently denied the Apple iPad was even the device being considered.

  9. Are you planning to make an equally big fuss about the fact that the County Council has spent £18,395.86 on tablet computers, including £3,153.46 on iPads? Or does the City Council get preferential treatment?

  10. According to one councillor there are proposals at the County Council to spend £100K on IT kit for councillors:

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