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Policing needs an information strategy

03/11/16

Commoditised IT, a federated infrastructure and new attitudes to risk could all contribute to more efficient and effective policing, writes former chief constable of Cambridgeshire Constabulary Simon Parr

A look at the police and crime plans of English and Welsh forces yields an enormous amount of information on what chief constables and police and crime commissioners see as the priorities for policing.  Everything you would hope and expect to see is present, with the focus rightly being on protecting the vulnerable, preventing offences, dealing with offenders, and balancing budgets.

What you will rarely if ever see, however, is any detailed focus on the information required to deliver these plans.  Even more unusual would be an exposition of how that information is going to be managed.

Alongside the focus on safeguarding, there may be some discussion about investing in new technology, allowing officers to work remotely from police stations, a mobility initiative, or investment in body worn video. But there will almost certainly be nothing about fully digitising policing either locally or nationally.

This is not new. Policing, along with most if not all of the UK public sector, has always been behind private industry in adopting new ways of working.

The reasons remain the same: a belief that policing is somehow different from any other business and needs its unique ICT; the fact that we still have 43 forces with different IT histories, procurement cycles and levels of understanding at senior level; and above all there remains a focus on the technology, not the information it carries. 

Life and death

It is true that policing is unique in the role it plays in society; it can be a matter of life and death and its decisions often have life changing consequences. But at heart police information is like that of any other sector – a series of ones and noughts that need collating, storing and disseminating securely and in a timely fashion. If this is accepted, then we can use the UKAuthority white paper to begin to challenge those who would buy bespoke and outdated systems.

Indeed, the challenging nature of policing the UK over the next 10 to 20 years surely makes it even more important that information is not kept hidden from the people who most need it. Is there not a bigger duty than ever before to move that information around the country?

However, while we lack an information strategy for policing – one that could be adhered to by all chiefs and supported through intelligent collaborative procurement – we are unlikely to ever answer the information needs of policing the 21st century.  

The white paper points the way towards a new approach to this – buying off-the-shelf, commercially proven products on a national scale, using secure commercial cloud to store information only once and making it available at point of need to whoever is authorised to see it. This should not be a revolutionary step and should not be seen as a risk, for worldwide businesses do this on a daily basis. 

If the service were to change its perspective, and  start to think about gathering, storing, protecting and sharing information rather than procuring new technology, the benefits would be enormous: integrated partnership working; information pushed to staff with GPS enabled smartphones; evidence gathered digitally, stored, and added to crime files; video in courtrooms rather than dry paper statements; and the ability to make tens of millions of pounds of savings each year to reinvest in new challenges. All of these are within the grasp of a service that starts to speak the language of digitisation rather than technology.

Federated infrastructure

The white paper reminds us that there is already common ground in many of the systems in use – and it is not too big a leap to see how they could join up in a nationally federated infrastructure to provide some very big digital building blocks.  Add this to a national strategy on the use of commercial cloud and, as the paper says, we would be well on the way to creating a digitised landscape. 

Added to this is the benefit that the majority of public sector partners are also using this commercially available technology, meaning that information sharing becomes much easier, identity access management can be easily standardised, managed and audited, and the public better protected.

But all of this cannot happen in isolation. The white paper touches on leadership: a significant factor, not just in forging agreements to work in the same way, but in trusting staff to have the information and use it wisely. 

The service sends its least experienced officers out to patrol at night (when there is the least amount of supervision to assist), dealing with spontaneous and dangerous incidents and trusts them to make the best decisions. These can lead to depriving people of their liberty, and involve using force when necessary, and in the most extreme circumstances taking a life in order to protect others. It seems perverse that those trusted with such huge responsibility are not also trusted the with the information at their fingertips that could help them make the right choice.

This change requires a new approach to risk.  Whilst it is, no doubt, in need of an upgrade, there is nothing in the Data Protection Act that prevents or even discourages the free flow of information within or across organisations provided that exchange can be justified. The biggest risk, surely, is in having the information and locking it down in closed, bespoke systems and not allowing it to be used.

Download the full white paper, Digitising Policing, from here.

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