Saturday 13th July 2024,
North Yorks Enquirer

The £53k Question

On Friday Feb 24th 2012, Councillors attending a full Council meeting at Scarborough Borough Council (SBC) voted themselves some new shiny iPads, but new facts have come to light that will cast doubt upon the information given to them.

Originally it was thought that ceasing printing Council agendas and posting them out to Councillors would save in the region of £10k per annum. At the meeting on Friday Feb 24th the Council Leader, Councillor Tom Fox, told a full Council meeting that the original figure was wrong and it would actually save £53k per annum, if the members voted to buy seventy iPads. That’s fifty for the Councillors and twenty for Senior Council Officers.

Most Councillors had never heard the £53k figure mentioned before the full Council meeting and the only substantiation that there was a £53k saving to be made was orally from Tom Fox. They had no time to look objectively at the figures quoted, no time to read more material on the matter, no time to ask questions of the Borough’s Council Officers and make an informed decision. Of the fifty councillors elected by the people in the Borough of Scarborough only eight didn’t vote for Tom Fox’s proposal. It seems a good many Councillors may fall for the charm of Mr Adeboju who desperately needs a UK bank account to move monies from his small African country.

A breakdown of the supposed £53k saving is as follows:

£3,000 Materials
£5,000 Postage Savings
£5,000 Printing Costs
£10,000 Equipment
£30,000 Merging Print Plus & Admin inc Staff Restructure
£53,000 Total Savings Per Annum

The first two lines seem self-explanatory and the costs seem about right. Would it not be easier to pop the agendas into the Councillors pigeonholes at the Town Hall so they can save on postage costs? This should have been on the agenda as soon as the Councillors were issued with laptops for communicating with their ward constituents.

I believe the ‘Printing Costs’ relate to the watermarking of council documents. All documents that are passed to Councillors at SBC are individually watermarked. If the documents are leaked to the press or a third party, and if Council Officers get their hands on the offending document, they can easily tell which Councillor leaked the document and take appropriate action.

Incidentally, SBC have software for the iPads that will track every move the Councillors make. They’ll have the ability to monitor which documents are opened and for how long, and even if those documents have been copied to an external device such as a USB memory stick.

For those interested the £10k equipment cost is for a Fast Mono Printer. SBC have two of these printers and they will be retaining one for internal use. The £30k saving looks as if will come from some poor soul losing their job and the reshuffling of other staff.

What stands out from the costs? Well, there is not a single mention of iPads. No mention of their purchase costs, no mention of software costs, no mention of their ongoing support costs, no mention of training costs and no mention of other costs associated with the use of an iPad. The £53k saving is solely as a result of stopping printing and posting material out to Cllrs.

So what are the iPad costs? The Council are keeping that information very close to their chest. There are a few FOI requests in to try and prise that information out of them, but they are noted for their eel-like qualities and I have every expectation that will not be disclosed due to containing ‘financially sensitive material’. In lieu of other information I would estimate the cost of the iPads to be somewhere between £12-18k per year if you spread the cost over five years. If you add in the iPad costs it wouldn’t be a £53k saving, more like £35-41k saving.

Tom Fox has given a few interviews to the press about his justification of the iPad purchase.

“This isn’t about a cost rise, this is about a cost saving.”

“Out of £2.2 million pounds in savings in the budget, £53,000 is savings related to having iPads.”

“What I cannot understand it why people cannot evaluate between the saving made and if it is an expense. I’m finding it very hard to get my head around.”

At the very worst Tom Fox has lied to his fellow Councillors. At the very best he has unwittingly passed along misinformation from uninformed Council Officers and made himself look a complete fool.

There is one option that doesn’t seem to have been considered. If they are looking for savings then using the existing laptops and stopping printing represents the best possible saving for the Council. They realise almost the full £53k saving with only the current support costs for the laptops debiting from that figure. I’ve heard a few moans about how slow the laptops are. My work laptop is about the same age and does the business. Maybe the Council IT staff need to improve their act and clean up the laptops with a desktop refresh? It didn’t go unnoticed by me that some Councillors complain it takes ages to download stuff from Council networks and I will go into those further down.

So is it all about the paperless office? No. If they were indeed looking for savings then the time to try and implement a paperless office was a year after the laptops were issued and the Councillors had gotten the knack of using them. Councillors were claiming for ‘Internet Allowance’ since 2003/4. At the end of this month they will have been claiming for nine years. If they’d implemented a paperless office in 2004/5 the savings to the tax payer would have been around £400k to date.

Is it about improving the productivity of Councillors? Since most Councillors use the laptop to respond to email and read a few documents I can’t imagine the iPads making much difference to their productivity. It will take much longer to respond to emails or write documents, but on the plus side they can sit on the sofa or do a spot of late night reading in bed.

There could be a little more than meets the eye to the speed issues the Councillors are encountering. Most organisations use software to give secure remote access to their networks. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) provide a securely encrypted tunnel between two points on the Internet. Use of VPNs is vital for business class Internet access services. There have been major changes in the way Internet connections have been managed over the past few years. The growth in the use of Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Networks has gobbled up lots of bandwidth at ISPs. ISPs found it increasingly expensive to keep up with the usage and implemented systems to keep the majority of customer’s connections working well while clamping down on users that use lots of bandwidth. The systems are called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) which are used to identify the different types of traffic coming from the customer and Quality of Service (QoS) to give a class of service to different types of traffic. This ensures that lowly prioritised traffic (P2P) doesn’t gobble up all the bandwidth.

It is my contention that the speed issues are not down to the age of the laptops, but down to the speed of the Councillors broadband connection. If you buy one of the cheapest possible home user Internet connections on the market at around £9.99-14.99 a month then the ISP might not prioritise that VPN traffic flowing across your connection which in turn leads to very slow speeds for VPNs. If Councillors are not spending their entire Internet Allowance on a broadband connection which supports VPNs, then this will very likely be the cause of the speed issues and the not the laptops themselves. These speed issues are quite important as Councillor Fox has quoted this reason as one main drivers for the purchase of the iPads.

There is a chain of events which leads to the poor decision to buy the iPads and waste upwards of £40k of tax payer’s money here. The Councillors didn’t spend their full allowance on a business class broadband service which would support a VPN connection and instead opted for a cheap as chips home user service which caused speed and productivity issues. The Council IT staff incorrectly diagnosed the speed problems as being caused by the laptops which led to the decision to look around for a new solution. Any £500 a day IT Consultant would probably have picked this out quite quickly.

Given all of the above I think it is safe to say the purchase of the iPads was never about saving tax payer’s money. The decision magnified poor IT practices which culminated in a very poor decision by SBC and will ultimately end up wasting a lot of money if carried through. Overall, it is a very poor attempt at justifying the spending of tax payer’s money on a piece of equipment particularly when you take into account that it will not benefit the majority of users. It seems obvious to me that the Council are going to fully spend their IT budget so they can continue to justify their jobs, especially in these times of austerity. Has anyone ever heard of a case where a government organisation handed back money to Central Government saying they didn’t need it this year?

Article first posted to Real Whitby on March 13 2012.

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