Logging off: wasteful Whitehall tech gathering dust

by Scott Simmonds, researcher at the TaxPayers’ Alliance


Electronic devices play an essential role in the everyday running of any organisation, whether to check messages, access the internet, or make an old-fashioned phone call. The same goes for Whitehall. Government ministers and mandarins love their mobiles, with laptops facilitating huge hot-desking floors within departments and meeting rooms kitted out with impressive tech. 


But as part of our War on Waste campaign, the TPA has discovered that tens of thousands of these devices - laptops, mobile phones and tablets - are remaining idle and unused, collecting dust throughout government departments.


Given they’re paid for with taxpayers’ hard earned cash, these expensive pieces of equipment should not be left lying around and, and wherever possible, be reused or resold. Sadly, this has not been the case. A staggering 23,890 devices are simply sitting idle. The most wasteful examples include:

  • The Department for Education, where 20 per cent of phones remain unused.

  • Four departments - The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for International Trade and, the Department for Work and Pensions – which have over a third of their electronic tablets sitting idle.

  • The Home Office, where a remarkable 2,339 laptops remain firmly switched off.

These findings can’t be dismissed as an inevitable consequence of government. Some departments are setting an excellent example. The Wales Office was the only department without any unused devices. Similarly, the Scotland Office set a high standard, with only four unused.


There is nothing stopping other departments matching those levels of efficiency. If the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has four per cent of their mobile phones unused, why then does the Department for Education (DfE) have 20 per cent? The DWP, again, has 3 per cent of its laptops remaining unused. But the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has 17 per cent. Why? The huge variations that exist in this particular case (and in plenty of others) show that the underperforming departments can achieve so much more. 


Looking at the promises made by the politicians running these departments, we can get a flavour for the costs involved. The government pledged to give laptops to every disadvantaged GCSE student throughout the UK during the coronavirus pandemic. Fair enough - a noble and worthwhile sentiment. At a total bill of £85 million for 200,000 laptops, that’s £425 each. On that basis, DfE has around £488,000 worth of laptops lying around its own department. These could be sold, or put to better use. The Home Office alone could provide every GCSE student at 107 schools with laptops from their unused stockpile - more than enough for every secondary school in Essex. 


The private sector should also be encouraged to help. Almost all companies regularly renew tech. Surely some could be encouraged to donate to such a worthy cause of giving kids laptops during a pandemic? We saw an outpouring of support from the private sector in aiding the national effort to manufacture hand sanitiser and ventilators. Equivalent support applied to technology would save the government multiple millions and be hugely welcomed by already over-burdened taxpayers.


Whether it’s pulling out all the stops in a pandemic, or simply making better use of purchased devices in normal times, government must get better at managing technology and equipment. Tech is extremely expensive, and a wasteful mindset now could cost a fortune down the line. 


It applies to unused devices the same way it does to overspending on dubious training programs or expensive cost overruns. Careless government spending needs to stop. Maximising value for money needs to be an even higher priority. There is no such thing as public money, there is only taxpayers’ money. A fact that free-spending government mandarins, with their mountains of unused technology, should constantly be reminded of.


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