A mobile policeman's lot
A National Audit Office (NAO) investigation into the use of mobile technology by police forces generated the usual headlines about taxpayers' money being thrown at IT with little return. But the study does not address the big question of why the policing is so difficult to transform with the help of IT.
In retrospect, the 2007 Mobile Information Programme was a classic example of a public sector initiative driven by technological input targets, rather than desired outcomes. The overt goal in 2007 was to provide 10,000 mobile devices to police officers over two years.
On this target, it succeeded - some 41,000 devices were issued to police officers and community support officers in two years.
When it came to measuring what officers were actually doing with the devices, let alone their impact on police forces and the criminal justice system as a whole, target-hitting was more elusive. At the outset, it was assumed that the Blackberrys and PDAs would reduce bureaucracy, improve efficiency and allow front line officers to spend more time visible to the public.
However the NAO found that only one in five forces had used mobile technology effectively to improve the efficiency of their business and operational processes. Cash savings have been "minimal", the NAO said, pointing to achievements such as Yorkshire Police's saving of £121,000 a year from not having to print stop and search forms.
The business case for the programme was considered only in 2008, after the decision to deploy mobile devices had been made. (Although apparently bizarre, this failing was far from unique to police IT projects.) The NAO reported: "The business case was constrained by factors including the announced deadlines, lack of resource funding (Home Office funded capital investment only) and the potential conflict with forces' existing plans to provide mobile policing."
The NAO commented that the rationale for investment "was insufficiently developed as it was based on the requirement to deliver devices quickly within a fixed budget and did not consider the impact of partially equipping forces". (While some forces ended up with more mobile devices than officers, most did not have enough to go around.)
While the business case should have been all about transforming behaviours, it appears to have paid little attention to the culture of front line policing. Here, the mobile project seems to have fallen in to the old trap of assuming that, of all public sector workers, the police should take most naturally to mobile technology. After all, they are mainly of the right age demographic and, unlike, say, social workers, they go in to their careers knowing that mobile gadgetry will play a big part in their working lives. The typical officer is also famously averse to paperwork - or at least will say they are.
Reality is more complex. Police officers turn out to be as resistant as other staff to new working routines forced upon them, especially in highly stressful situations. There are also mundane difficulties of maintaining and carrying an extra device.
All is not lost. Where police officers see immediate benefits from mobile IT - for example in gaining a psychological upper hand with a suspect by appearing to check their identity immediately - acceptability spreads quickly.
The NAO says there is still the opportunity to secure value for money from existing mobile technology if a greater proportion of forces use it to support more efficient processes and secure savings in their back-office activities.
This change will have to be made in a very different climate to that of 2007 - police forces are going through a grant cut of 20% in real terms this spending round. While this may provide the "burning platform" for efficiency savings, it will a difficult time for morale and willingness to change.
It will also have to be achieved against disruptive changes in the way police forces procure and run their IT. The NAO report notes that a new reform programme for police IT aims converge to a smaller number of common systems and nationally available services delivered through new commercial arrangements. It notes that the arrangements for future ownership of the strategy are "yet to be clearly worked out" - the National Policing Improvement Agency, currently in charge is being phased out this year and some of its IT functions assumed by a new commercial venture "NewCo" by spring 2012, owned and led by the Police Service.
Meanwhile, a separate Emergency Services' Mobile Communication Programme aims to develop options for replacing the current Airwave digital emergency services' radio system. "It is not yet clear whether it will seek to bring together all types of mobile devices currently used by the emergency services."
Against this backdrop of cuts and changes, it seems that the hurried technology choices made in 2007 for dubious business reasons will be with us for a long time to some. There's a lesson in that for the whole public sector.