The BBC has got hold of an interesting Freedom of Information response today - on taxpayer-funded iPhone applications.
Essentially, they discovered a number of apps, ranging from £10,000 to £40,000 in cost, that have a weird and wonderful range of functions.
Of course, having a weird and wonderful range of functions is exactly what makes the iPhone app store great. As an iPhone user, I can do anything from mess around on games to tracking freight shipping around the world.
The problem with these apps, though, is twofold: 1) Should the Government be doing this at all? and 2) Are they good at it when they do?
Unfortunately, the answer seems broadly to be "no" - to both questions.
What seems to have happened is not that the Government departments and agencies involved have identified a key function which they need an app in order to achieve, and a corresponding demand for such a product.
Instead, they have essentially pursued the Magpie approach to policy-making - i.e. "ooh, that's shiny! I want one."
Because iPhones are all the rage, they wanted in on the act. So they cobbled together some ideas and went ahead and did them - with our money, and with no comeback if they failed.
What are these apps that the BBC have discovered?
Well, there's the Job Centre Plus app. This is intended to help people find jobs - which is a fair enough intention. Except for a few glitches. For a start, it duplicates other apps already on the market - provided free at the expense of private companies rather than taxpayers. Worse, it doesn't actually work in the most recent iPhone Operating System, OS4.
Reading the reviews on the App Store is telling. Whilst 50,000 people have apparently downloaded the app, it appears that few of them have found it satisfactory. The overall rating is 2.5 out of 5, from over 2,000 user reviews. Here are a few recent quotes from users:
"Rubbish"..."crap"..."It was rubbish before the update and it's even worse now"..."probably the slowest app to update out of the whole of the market"..."Just like the real JobCentre - useless"..."It comes up [with] jobs in England when I live in Scotland".
Then, of course, there's the issue of targeting. While it's not just the very wealthy who own iPhones, it is certainly not the very poorest in society. If the JobCentre had this money left over and felt they had to spend it, then why did they choose to target the better off, rather than the long term unemployed who are the most difficult to find work for? One of the rare five star review for the app even starts "Finally, something back [for[ the middle class iPhone owners".
Another app is the DVLA's "Motoring Masterclass", which will provide step-by-step guides in doing things like changing car wheels or replacing spark plugs.
This one is even more questionable than the Job Centre's effort. The DVLA's job is issuing driving licenses and selling licence plates for cars - not training the nation in how to tinker with car engines. There is simply no case for a Government agency to do this, and it is certainly beyond the DVLA's remit. Although it's still under development, the app is expected to cost taxpayers around £40,000.
The lazy thinkers who like to defend Government spending regardless of whether it is right or wrong will inevitably try to suggest that our criticism of this spending is Luddite.
Far from it - I and many of my colleagues are if anything too keen on our iPhones.
A better way for Government to contribute to useful application creation
at nearly zero cost to taxpayers would be to make far more of their
data open to the public, and to provide open datafeeds for any
application developer to use. Instead of blundering around,
incompetently mimicking the work of a cutting edge industry, they should
simply facilitate it and let the clever kids get on with doing their
As my colleague John O'Connell pointed out earlier in the year, it is possible to produce iPhone apps that are of genuine civic use. There are two apps (funded by taxpayers' grants but produced by independent charity MySociety and assembled volunteers) - FixMyStreet and StreetReport - that allow you to report broken streetlamps, graffiti and so on to your council swiftly and easily, for example.
The problem is that these effective and useful apps are so rare, compared to the wasteful and unnecessary apps uncovered by the BBC. I mentioned before that this pursuit of shiny things for shinyness' sake is magpie policy making. The problem with being a magpie is that you spend a lot of time and effort collecting shiny things, but all you end up with is a nest full of stuff that you can't use.