Industry voiceThursday 16 March 2017

Standards will be crucial in common IT for policing

Industry voice: Harnessing existing open and industry standards can be the key to rationalising the police IT estate while ensuring it fulfils its purpose, writes Matt Bishop, digital advisor and policing chief technology officer for Microsoft UK

There is a growing consensus in UK policing that it has too many IT systems: more than 2,000 between 43 forces, according to estimates from the Police ICT Company. It is undermining the services on two counts: making the technology more expensive than it needs to be and hindering efforts towards collaboration between forces and with other public services.

The big challenges in rationalising the IT estate are to ensure that it serves the prime purpose of supplying information, usually in real time, to help police officers make urgent decisions, and to ensure there is a competitive market among suppliers.

This provided the basis of a UKAuthority Live discussion in which I took part alongside a group of experts in the field - with contributions from viewers around the country. It identified some of the main problems and challenges, and highlighted that the adoption of information standards is going to be crucial in making it work.

Over the past year or so there has been plenty of talk about the potential to reduce the reliance on bespoke IT systems in policing, using common solutions based on commodity platforms. This can make a big contribution towards the efficiency agenda: Ian Bell, enabling progammes director of the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and chief information officer of the Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire forces, said his “gut feeling” was that it is possible to cut about 30% from the £1.1 billion per year bill on police IT.

Procurement problem

Delivering such significant savings, however, needs a change of approach to procurement. Simon Parr, former chief constable of Cambridgeshire Constabulary and consultant with the Home Office, said that the current situation goes back to the early days of forces adopting technology, when policing was much more localised than it is now.

They bought their own systems for what were seen as particular needs, and over time individual forces got into a position where their replacement and procurement cycles were entirely different to everyone else in the country. As the time came to replace systems, they felt they had to find something equally specific.

There has also been a trend in recent years in which forces have emphasised the adoption of mobile technology. Although this has had the laudable aim of giving police officers access to information while on the beat, and therefore allowing them more time in their communities, it has not addressed the way that information moves through - and between - organisations.

Forces are not yet adopting an approach in which they capture the information once then use it many times. People think about different systems, but there are not 43 different ways of moving information.

Information issue

Parr also raised a fundamental question around the information held by police forces and a recognition that it could be relevant to others in keeping the public safe: how many times do you want to store that piece of information? If the answer is once, but it can be re-used many times, it supports the case for a more common approach to IT.

This can be aligned with the growing view that police forces should be making more use of commodity IT platforms, which have become much more sophisticated in recent years and better able to manage information in line with police processes. This would support the re-use of information, and make a big contribution to savings in future years.

It does not entail a ‘one size fits all’ approach – there will still be elements of policing in which the need for a localised approach remains – but it will require common standards for the information as much as the technology.

Robert Leach, deputy chief executive of the Police ICT Company, said that the move towards common IT should be made in parallel with a move towards standards for the way that data is held, updated, transacted and exchanged. This would lay the ground for enabling a fully competitive market, rather than a single IT system or just a handful for specific processes.

The key factor is that if suppliers know they are conforming to those standards they can sell their systems to any police services; and the forces know they can find alternative suppliers offering competing systems.

Aspiration

Leach said the Policing Vision 2025, published in November of last year, provides a foundation for digital technology in policing. It provides an aspiration for an operational environment – with a local workforce, operational environment, digital capabilities and enabling services – underpinned by a coordinated ICT strategy.

The Police ICT company is developing processes to help realise that strategy and has worked out principles requiring forces to think about their data architecture in line with business architecture. One of its assumptions is that, before making decisions on IT, you ask if what you want to do has been done before; whether it conforms with standards; and if you can re-use it support collaboration.

Other positive steps have been taken: the NPCC has working groups for issues such as infrastructure and commercial arrangements; police forces are becoming more confident about the security of cloud services for holding information; and the Police ICT Company is working on a more coordinated approach to contracts with suppliers. Also, the Police Transformation Fund is supporting initiatives in using digital technology.

And the standards to underpin this do not necessarily have to developed exclusively for policing. Some are already in place – including those developed by the Government Digital Service – that could be applied to policing to support the better use of information. They could be a great asset in supporting collaboration and providing the value from commodity IT.

Common information and technical standards will be great for modern policing; and there is no need to develop them within a police silo.

You can watch the full discussion below: