Interview: Martin Wyke, CEO of the Police ICT Company, says rationalisation and standardisation are key to the digital future of UK police forces
It can be a boost and a worry for public servants when a Government minister shows an understanding of their speciality. Probably more so when the minister has the formidable reputation of Home Secretary Theresa May.
Martin Wyke, however, doesn't seem disturbed by her recent speech on police ICT. Even though she declared that the existing situation is not good enough, he talks a similar language, outlines similar priorities, and suggests that what she demands is achievable – given sufficient time.
He is speaking with UKAuthority the week after May's speech to the Police IT Suppliers' Summit, where she pointed to fundamental shortcomings: forces are still spending too much on fragmented, outdated technology; they are not digitally joined up with the criminal justice system; they are not ensuring their officers have the skills for basic digital investigations; and they are doing too many of their own deals with suppliers instead of sharing systems.
She highlighted the existence of more than 2,000 IT systems spread over 43 forces, with their ICT spending projected at £600 million for 2015-16, plus Home Office costs of £104.4 million on 21 national policing systems for 2016-17, some of which will be recharged to forces.
But she also pointed to the Police ICT Company as taking on a crucial role as the “intelligent customer” to broker deals for police services and advise them on solutions. As its chief executive officer Wyke is eager to highlight its early achievements in the role.
“Our members are the police and crime commissioners. They each paid in £25,000 last year and we've delivered a 300% return on the investment in year one,” he says.
This is less than a year after the organisation was established, and just seven months since Wyke arrived. But he makes clear that this is just the beginning of the work.
“As well as acting as a catalyst for change we want to commission structural reform for ICT in policing. I'm going out there and saying the 43-force ICT model is flawed. It's uneconomical and does not allow for effective policing, particularly when you have borderless and cyber crime.
“The fact that there are 43 disparate systems, loosely coupled at best and incompatible at worst, means it is not set up for success.
“We are looking at how we can provide efficiencies, and the best areas we can focus on are those like contracts, licensing and framework agreements. For example, we rationalised the IBM i2 estate, a data analysis tool for which there were 122 different contracts, and brought it under a single framework. That's realised savings in excess of £2.5-3.0 million.
“We're now working with other software vendors, and are creating a vehicle that can give policing a joined up face to the supplier community.”
Network of networks
That joining up is not confined to the way police forces buy their ICT; it has as much to do with how they work with each other. There were reports from last week's event of calls for a “network of networks” for police forces, a concept reminiscent of the Public Services Network for secure communications. But Wyke sees it more as a framework, supported by standardisation, to ensure forces systems that are interoperable.
“One of the things we see as key is interoperability, systems that can work together, which is why we need to create standards, the framework agreements and principles,” he says.
“The analogy is like the train operators when it was deregulated; they did it under a code of conduct. Policing could benefit from that sort of glue, so systems conform to standards that make them interoperable. That would provide a 'network of networks'.”
There is an example of the need for this in the use of Niche RMS, the police records management system, used by 22 forces in 16 variants. Wyke says the attributes are applied differently, so one force may describe a suspect's hair colour as ginger while another says it is auburn, and this makes it very difficult to match the records. Also, if a change has to be made it has to be done 16 times.
It needs a better alignment of systems, to which there is another element. He steers clear of advocating a national approach for managing the ICT of different forces, but says there is plenty of scope for bringing it into regional groupings, which could lead to a significant rationalisation.
“I can see a path to 15 ICT functions in the next five to 10 years rather than the existing 43. There are natural alliances forming already.
“For example, in the south-west, following a report we commissioned, they are now appointing a regional director to work across five forces. Ian Bell, who sits on our board, is now IT director for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, and has collapsed that IT function into one. In the south-east, Thames Valley, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire are coming together. If you extend that across the country I can see a route to 15.
“I want to push that for many reasons. One is that a lot of forces do not have the capability or the money to do the necessary changes. By having 15 they can combine resources and solve a problem together. If you take something like body-worn video where there are multiple solutions to the same problem, it's wrong.”
It also has the potential for serious savings. The home secretary cited a forecast by Bluelightworks, a technology and business process consultancy for police forces, that the Police ICT Company could help save £75 million on IT budgets and £390 million in wider organisational savings.
It is also contributing to the national ICT strategy for policing. While this is being led by the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs Council, the ICT company is working on the infrastructure aspects.
One of these involves rationalising the 140 data centres used by forces, and Wyke talks of developing a balanced portfolio of short, medium and long term initiatives. But he also hints that one problem might be excessive expectations.
“The danger is that some people might think we are bigger than we are,” he says. “We are like an intelligent client, a small company full of experts and consultants; we are a disrupter and a challenger, someone who can commission and be commissioned on initiatives.
“But we won't be a full end-to-end ICT organisation with a big operational capability and development shop.”
Despite that, he is still ambitious for what it can achieve, saying it is “starting small, growing incrementally but thinking big”.
An immediate priority is show the company can deliver more value back to police services than they pay in – important as Wyke makes the case for them to increase their payments – while others deal with standards, moving a number of contracts from the Home Office, and working with forces to improve their collaboration.
He says forces are now more ready to work together, spurred on by the pressures of austerity and the new types of crime emerging from the internet, and changes are under way around the politics, culture and budget allocation in policing.
It leads him to an optimistic conclusion: “I think they are reasons why we will see a different face to police ICT.”