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Are free internet tools the best way to collaborate online in the civil service?

‘You get what you pay for’ – it’s a phrase we use to justify paying a high price for goods and services, or to express disappointment when the cheaper alternative flops. But does this concept still apply today, when the internet can connect us to a huge range of free products and services? Think of the apps on your smartphone or tablet – you probably rely on a handful of them every day, and it’s likely that most were completely free.

Of course, many of us still like to get what we pay for. Stella Artois may have ditched the Reassuringly Expensive slogan back in 2007, but luxury brands continue to draw loyal customers who perceive a higher price as a guarantee of superior quality. However, the popularity of apps and open source software also means we no longer expect poor quality when we’ve paid nothing.

Today, we’re usually confronted with an abundance of options whenever we turn to the internet to solve a problem – and some of them are free. This is certainly true when people seek new tools to help them collaborate online. A quick search will bring up a host of file sharing, project management and collaboration tools – some completely free, some based on the Freemium model (no charge for the basic software but you pay for add-on features and to expand functionality) and some with a price attached. 

Many of these tools are perfectly fine. Just like the apps on your phone, they’re easy to find, quick to install and simple to use. But if you need to collaborate online for a purpose that’s critical to your organisation, there can be limitations and even dangers attached. This is particularly true in the civil service, where the delivery of key objectives is increasingly dependent on the success of collaborative working. In this scenario, the free option is often not the best option.

Limitations of free tools

1. Flawed security

You need to know your data is safe and secure. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to find a free tool that specialises in secure cloud collaboration – or even one that can offer a convincing argument for the security of your files. Popular tools like Dropbox are convenient and easy to use, but they’re essentially consumer-level file sharing services that lack the robust security credentials required by businesses and public sector organisations. 

Some free cloud services may even use your data to drive revenue, mining the information you store in their cloud for advertising purposes. This means your data won’t be encrypted – and can potentially fall into the wrong hands.

2. Lack of support

Most free collaboration tools will not offer the level of technical support you need to resolve queries and get the most from the tool. You may have access to a basic support service that can answer simple questions, but advice on using the tool to meet your team’s specific needs or satisfy a particular project objective? Forget it.

3. Limited functionality

Of course, lack of support may not be the only obstacle you encounter when trying to tailor your free cloud collaboration service to the needs of a specific project. The free tool you’ve chosen may simply lack the functionality your project requires. Many of the free options currently available are built only for file sharing, or they offer a one-size-fits-all form of collaboration that you cannot alter in any meaningful way.

In the public sector environment, where the onus is on collaborative working to drive improvements in specific areas like procurement and stakeholder engagement, it’s unlikely such tools will ever be fit for purpose.

Selecting a cloud collaboration tool

When it comes to collaborating online in the civil service, it seems the old adage of ‘you get what you pay for’ still applies. It’s clear that free tools will invariably fail to meet the specific collaboration needs of civil servants. But simply removing all the free tools from the shortlist does not make it easy for project leaders in the civil service to select a collaboration platform. With so many paid-for tools also on the market, civil servants must thoroughly assess their requirements and choose carefully.

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