iPhone, BlackBerry, Android: A parliamentary headache


blog If you’d been listening in to the ongoing Senate Estimates hearings in Federal Parliament over the past week, you’d have witnessed an interesting phenomenon which perfectly encapsulates the Bring Your Own Technology headache suffered by many chief information officers at present.

As we’ve previously reported, there are many Australians who work in Parliament, and other departments and agencies, who would prefer to use something other than the Government-approved BlackBerrys for their work.

Previously the debate has focused on the extent to which politicians, their staffers and public servants have been able to use Apple iPhones instead of the BlackBerrys. Many staffers already carry around two devices — a BlackBerry for official government email and documents, and an iPhone for everything else. The plan is that the Defense Signals Directorate will eventually approve the iPhone for high-security access and then those devices will become one. However, the debate has since moved on from that point. Take this question, from Liberal Senator Scott Ryan, to parliamentary bureaucrat Freda Hanley, on Monday this week:

“Members and Senators and staff can have their privately-funded iPads and iPhones hooked up to the system now … What I was wondering is: Do you have any records on the numbers of queries or requirements for support for those devices versus a BlackBerry device? … Apple do not seem to have the reliability challenges — and I talk about staff who seem to have more reliable iPhones than I have in a BlackBerry.”

And then later on, from the chair, which I believe at that time was Labor Senator Helen Polley, to departmental deputy secretary David Kenny

“… are you then open to looking at the Apple iPhones as a replacement for the BlackBerrys if they are proven to be — as most of us would attest them to being — more reliable?”

Upon receiving replies that corporate procurement of smartphones was the responsibility of the Department of Finance, the politicians awaited the next day’s proceedings, at which, happily, Finance Department staff were taking questions. “Is any consideration being given … to offer the option of Apple iPhone?” came the inevitable question.

Similar questions were asked about the extent to which parliamentarians and staffers were able to use the Apple iPad — to what extent they could connect corporate applications to it, fixing security bugs and so on. At one point, a flabberghasted Finance staffer Kim Clarke, acknowledged the department was “getting pressure all over the place for slightly different things”, including “Samsung Androids”.

What we’re seeing here is something quite remarkable. We’re seeing, in the parliamentary microcosm, a user revolt by staffers frustrated that the technology they’re being provided with is not aiding them in doing their work — but rather, by modern standards, obstructing it. The Departments of Finance and Parliamentary Services simply cannot be expected to replace staff smartphones every several years — and yet, that is what some politicians are demanding.

“We are up to iPad version 2. Mr Secretary, you mentioned a moment ago that it is going to take a year to assess the cost … We will be up to iPad 3 or 4 or 5 by then,” Senator Stephen Parry told Kenny. “We have to move faster with tools that are going to make out jobs easier and eventually benefit our service to the taxpayer. We are living too far behind the technology that is available.”

Clearly, in this circumstance, the debate has gone past a childish desire for the latest technology, to questioning the basis of a sizable contract the Government holds with BlackBerry maker Research in Motion … by users who have no jurisdiction over that contract. It has also evolved into users questioning the validity and flexibility of the corporate applications they have been provided with. If they don’t work on the iPad … why not?

Now, Parliament is a somewhat unusual environment — with quite powerful end users. However, there is no doubt in my mind that right around Australia right now, employees of all stripes are similarly stridently questioning the corporate IT policies which have left them with legacy technology far behind what is available in their personal lives.

Is it any wonder that analyst firms like IDC are increasingly finding, as Australian senior analyst Trevor Clarke put it in a report this afternoon, that “the most important workspace ingredient is people and not technology”? There’s a revolution going on out there, and what is happening in Parliament is just the most visible example of it.

To be honest, the solution to this issue is not easy. It probably runs along the lines of shifting corporate applications into the cloud and providing universal access through a web browser to a device which is primarily funded by an employer but maintained and run by the end user, at their own risk. However, although it sounds easy, making this vision reality is actually quite hard.

Right now, perhaps the best path for CIOs is to simply target troublespots in their environments. Enable the iPad. Get email and voicemail access available on the road. Pilot web interfaces to your most in-demand apps. And hopefully, the rest will eventually follow. Good luck; I really don’t envy your task ;) But if you succeed in it, your users will stop cursing you … and simply become more efficient and productive at their jobs.

Image credit: Bob Smith, royalty free


  1. Clearly the procurement system is broken. Stick to web applications and SSL. While the iPhone is great, I think its about now that Android will start (ever so very slowly) filling in the gaps left by those that don’t want one.

    Replaceable battery is one thing your typical member of parliament might appreciate. A charger isn’t always on hand.

  2. Maybe the polis should look at the guidelines for government procurement which won’t allow them to put out a contract for 600 Apple iPads, requests must be to meet requirements and not for specific products. Although not to long ago if they put out a contract requesting 600 3g enable tablets devices they would have been almost certain to get iPads.

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