Policing needs more common IT

A recent series of UKAuthority round tables and interviews highlighted how shared platforms and commodity systems can provide the backbone for more efficient and effective policing

Police_white_paper_imagePolice forces still have plenty to learn about getting the best from digital technology. They have made advances in recent years, but are still to obtain the full benefits in terms of efficiencies, interoperability and the ability to share information for better decision-making.

The main problem has been that too often individual forces have done their own thing, buying IT solutions that are heavily bespoke and that undermine the cause of collaborative working.

There are common solutions: the Police National Computer for records on offenders, drivers, vehicles and stolen property, and the Police National Database for intelligence information. But these are just part of the overall picture, and even the Niche and Athena records management systems, while widely used, are heavily configured for different forces.

The time has come for an increased emphasis on common technology, not just in specialist platforms, but in police services using commodity IT systems. Some of these have advanced to the stage where they have the range of functions and flexibility to handle a lot of the processes in policing, supporting the back office administration and frontline operations.

It can provide big savings, robust support for officers in command centres and on the beat, and an environment in which information sharing becomes much easier.

It also poses a challenge in the need to change attitudes and build a new technology landscape. This will be a difficult task, but the pressures on public spending and growing awareness of how digital technology can revolutionise business activities means it cannot be ignored.

The question provided the basis for a series of round tables and interviews with senior police officers and other high ranking officials in May 2016, organised by UKAuthority and supported by Microsoft. It became clear that police forces have to be bolder in their adoption of digital, especially with the emergence of a technology-savvy workforce from the millennial generation.

A number of major issues became apparent, with efficiency always prominent, and a view that commodity technology can play a much increased role. Mobile is the obvious example, enabling officers to access and update information on the beat, and stay out in their communities rather than in the office.

Off-the-shelf video conferencing solutions can also play a significant role, reducing the need to travel for face-to-face meetings, and offering an alternative type of conversation with members of the public.

Customer relationship management systems can take on case management while integrating with office systems and specialist datasets. Enterprise resource planning systems can be adopted to support administrative processes. And online collaboration tools can enable the sharing of non-urgent information and advice within and between police forces.

For the more specialised functions, platforms that can be reused by different forces could play a big part in the future – taking the lead from the Government Digital Service’s work in building platforms for central government.

All of this can do a lot to support interoperability between systems and the sharing of information. The more common code and the less complexity there is in the systems, the more likely that police forces will be able to adapt them to work successfully with others.

Add to these the opportunities for handling digitised evidence, and to run analytics from the data in the systems, and it offers police forces the chance to make big advances in their effectiveness. These issues bring their own challenges, but they can be overcome, and make police forces much better equipped to meet public expectations.

The discussions led to the identification of a number of factors to support a new and more effective approach in harnessing digital in policing:

Focus on the common ground: Identify common functions and processes; look for standardisation, sharing and interoperability; and use commodity technologies.

Break old habits: Focus on the user experience and create intuitive processes in order to drive cultural and behavioural change.

Lead from the front: Clearly define what type of behaviour with technology is acceptable, be ready to communicate it clearly, and stand by officers who follow the line even when an incident attracts bad press.

Use data  for good: Look at aligning the information strategy with broader policing strategies; face up to the legal or ethical problems; and investigate the potential of predictive analytics.

Share what works – and what doesn’t: It can reduce duplication of effort in solving common problems.

Form procurement hubs: Be ready to work in regional or national groups to exploit the advantages of a single, intelligent customer and move towards interoperability. And give them the freedom to approach the market in an agile manner.

Be agile: Move at pace - particularly with procurement – and engage users in the discovery and design stages in order to gain quick feedback and align the efforts with real user and operational needs.

Underlying all this is the need for more commonality, with police forces looking to share their digital solutions rather than treat them as part of a ring fenced regional operation.

There will be challenges, missteps and probably some bad press along the way. But there is also scope for a multitude of improvements, little victories, and demonstrations to the public of how it can provide a safer environment. These will gradually feed the momentum for change.

These issues are examined in more depth in ‘Digitising policing’, a white paper that draws on the discussions to look at the technical and legal challenges of digital policing in the 21st century. It can be downloaded here.