The Cabinet Office has completed its first user trial of consumer technologies within the department.
The department trialled laptops, tablets, email, collaboration and Wi-Fi access with 50 staff during December and January as part of its technology transformation project to overhaul the department’s use of IT.
The technology transformation project, which runs until January 2015, is investigating possible consumer technologies and cloud services that could be rolled out to the 3,000 civil servants working at the Cabinet Office.
Since this alpha phase of the trial ended, the users have been quizzed about their experiences with devices such as Apple, Android and Windows 8 tablets and laptops, as well as applications such as Google Docs.
Writing on the Cabinet Office blog, civil servant Will van Rensburg said the users were reluctant to return any of the equipment at the end of the trial.
“Some of the clearest evidence of the difference the technology made came when we asked for the kit back – without exception, every team on the trial asked to keep the equipment beyond the trial end date.”
Government Digital Service
The technology that Cabinet Office gave to its 50 trial users included:
- Lightweight laptops and tablets
- Google Apps for mail, calendar, document creation and collaboration
- Evernote for notetaking and Libre Office for offline document creation
- Lightweight secure layer
- Device management
- Portable 4G
The Government Digital Service (GDS) – the team within the Cabinet Office tasked with transforming digital public services – stepped in to help with the technology transformation project in October 2013.
When GDS was set up in 2011, it chose not to use standard Cabinet Office IT systems, but deployed its own desktops and cloud services. The former interim director of digital and director of the G-Cloud programme, Chris Chant, said the cloud-based approach initially taken by GDS reduced costs by 80% compared with IT used elsewhere in the department.
New consumer devices
During the trial, Cabinet Office employee Anna Wojnarowska blogged about users' experiences and said the initial most noticeable benefits were that users had better connectivity and were more mobile. Equally there were problems, including connecting new laptops to existing email services, exchanging files with non-user trial participants and having to rely on paper based copies of documents when reporting to senior management.
Over the two-month period, GDS brought in researchers to analyse the behaviours of the alpha subjects through interviews and observation.
Only a few users reported significant benefits from trialling the Android and iOS tablets, which included note-taking during meetings, using them to present work, carrying all their documents with them, working on the train.
Van Rensburg noted the iPads were particularly popular, but a large number of users questioned whether they would help them work, either because they didn’t need to move about that much, or because they relied too heavily on the laptop-based tools that provided functionality the tablet couldn’t match.
“Some users found the tablet didn’t help them much – this confirmed our belief that tablets wouldn’t benefit everyone.”
Meanwhile applications such as Google Docs received mixed reviews from the alpha testers.
Users commented on how easily they were able to start using the real-time document-editing functionality of Google Docs, which saved emailing versions of presentations back and forth.
“During the trials they were able to work on the same document at the same time, from multiple locations – resulting in higher quality output, achieved faster. While their existing technology forced them to work a certain way, the trial technology enabled them to work how they wanted, and for the better,” said van Rensburg.
But the trial discovered that when alpha testers needed to work with civil servants outside of the trial who were not using the same technology, they faced issues trying to collaborate.
”This highlighted the need to make sure the applications and file formats work together, but also to think about how our users work with other departments and with people outside of the Cabinet Office,” said Rensburg.
But many users did not see Google Docs as being able to replace their existing applications, due to differences in formatting functionality. Users also said they would find it hard to adjust without support.
“Interestingly, very few users commented on not being able to use Outlook; and then only that their filing system within Outlook had no obvious parallel within Google Mail.”
Beale told Computer Weekly at the beginning of the year that usually, over the trial timeframe of less than three months, government IT would have only just got to the stage of hiring a lawyer to begin writing the contract. “That’s the difference,” he said. “And that’s what I’m most pleased about.”
Beale pointed out that the project wanted to start “naturally” with things people could see and touch, rather than applications and software. “People are interested in engaging with devices because of what’s happened with the consumerisation of IT,” he said.
It is this explosion of consumer technologies in recent years that Beale believes has changed how enterprise will use IT.
“What happened with Apple and the iPhone has changed perceptions forever around what technology should be in your pocket,” said Beale. “But on the other hand they don’t change anything. They still need to meet my user needs and be appropriately supported and helped. So we are going to use everything that’s available to us.”