Interview: Ian Bell, CEO of the Police ICT Company, says it is changing its style of engagement as it looks to deliver common solutions that can work within police forces’ change programmes
Ian Bell wants to see things done differently at the Police ICT Company (PICTO). It’s not about a sharp change of direction, but a different style in how it works with police forces and a clear assertion of priorities.
He is just a few weeks into the job of chief executive officer for PICTO, having been in the IT side of policing for 10 years, moving through various roles at Cambridgeshire Constabulary that culminated in the role of director of information of its shared service with the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire forces.
It gave him direct experience of dealing with PICTO from the client perspective – one of the organisations which it aims to support in buying and managing ICT better – and he came to feel it did not work as it should. He talks of a need to “soften the language” and establish a two-way “go to” point for smarter procurement and to support collaboration – while respecting the autonomy of police forces.
“For me it has been a problem, but now we want to make sure we do have that two-way engagement, using the coordination communities, community groups, business change community and technology community,” he says. “It’s about how do we make sure we are reflective of their needs and demand, prioritise against it and add value.”
“It’s about completely reflecting and understanding the demand and rationale from our peer group. That’s police and crime commissioners, the National Police Technology Council and the chief information officers of police forces.
“Some of the work we’ve started to do is to reset and rebrand the company in that fashion, to have more of a two-way relationship with the IT community.”
This is complemented by strengthening the relationship between the organisation and the National Police Technology Council (NPTC), which has set out the principles for ICT in policing. Bell has been its deputy chair and will retain the role now he has moved to PICTO.
He also points to how PICTO can support the National Enabling Programmes, which are led by senior police officers and providing various tools to support operational capabilities in line with the Policing Vision 2025. This is aimed at eliminating one of the long term frustrations in police ICT of individual forces negotiating their own deals with major suppliers, replacing them with single deals from which they can all take up contracts.
PICTO recently set a precedent with deals with data analytics software firm Chorus Intelligence and mobile network provider EE, and indicated that discussions are in progress with Vodafone and O2.
Another is in the pipeline, with the Enabling Programmes taking the lead in developing a platform based on Microsoft Office 365 that can be configured for individual police forces, which will become available under a memorandum of understanding on the contractual details.
More to come
“That’s a big win that could enable us to join up and redeliver the foundation technologies we need to have in place,” Bell says, adding that more such deals can be expected.
“There will be others in the pipeline that are currently commercially sensitive. There are vendors we are starting to work with, and we are working through our commercial governance and prioritising.
“Over the next month or so we’ll begin renegotiating with a substantial number of vendors. Whether it’s legacy, licensing, services, it’s about how we make sure that they are being delivered in the way we want, that they are value for money, and that the services are being consumed to maximise the benefits.”
Plans are already well advanced for a new identity management platform, which will replace the existing model delivered by the Home Office. The design is complete, it is approaching the final stages of procurement and Bell hopes it will be ready to go live by April of next year.
“It will be not only for sharing information internally, but to create wider access, working with volunteer groups, local authorities, partnership agencies and the like,” he says, adding that there has been an effort to understand how different parties need to use it.
“Some of it will be culture as much as technology, but if we get it right then we can truly begin to talk about interoperability.”
The issue of interoperability is a big one for police forces, ensuring that they are better placed to share information with each other and with national systems. Traditionally it has involved a heavy reliance on technology standards, but Bell is cautious about the approach, saying it has often involved a top down approach and needs more dialogue and “softer language”.
He does not dismiss standardisation, but suggests the need for some flexibility, using a common technology stack that can be configured to local demands as a foundation for interoperability. The identity management platform will be part of this, but a longstanding challenge is still to be overcome in developing a more common approach for the use of records management systems.
Police forces have been using Niche from Niche Technology and Athena from Northgate Public Services and these have been heavily customised into many variations. PICTO has run the Minerva programme to standardise the use of the former, but Bell acknowledges that progress has been slow.
“We are getting the vendors around the table,” he says. “If we look at the transition into the National Law Enforcement Data System, we begin to see what we want and can work with those vendors to make sure they align with that.
“It’s about being able to interoperate. We can’t look at transferring information between the two, but can get into the Minerva group and have the conversation.”
Knowledge Hub ambition
Work is also taking place on increasing the scope and number of users of PICTO’s Knowledge Hub, which provides a space for police forces to share information on ICT matters between themselves and with registered suppliers. The priorities for a new platform have been agreed, some information is now being transferred, and Bell says there will now be an effort to communicate what it can do for police forces.
“I’m really encouraged in the work that has been done. We’re now moving to see something that can be advertised among policing colleagues quite quickly, as well as the national programmes we will have a knowledge product we can continue to develop and which will have interoperability with other platforms.
“It has not yet been widely used. The whole point of the discussion so far has been to establish the platform we will put it on. But there are people queued up to use it, several large groups within policing and one from the emergency services.”
With all this going on, any thoughts about exploring the potential for emerging technologies – machine learning, artificial intelligence, the internet of things – are currently on the back burner. Bell says that PICTO is not currently geared up to be a research and development organisation or take a lead in horizon scanning.
But he suggests that as their role in policing grows there could be a point at which the organisation has to look at them more closely. Exploring these is likely to involve plugging into the right groups that have the capability of sharing what they learn.
“While we transfer from legacy into new flexible platforms that we crave, we can think about the future consumption of some of those technologies,” he says.
Summing up the priorities, Bell makes clear that changes in ICT are part of a larger picture for police forces.
“I want to deliver agreed, prioritised pieces of work where we can deliver significant value within appropriate timelines that help to meet the demands of police forces. Let’s not forget that every one of those forces has a massive programme for change and there is a wealth of national programmes around them.”
He also emphasises the importance of finding the balance between providing the common solutions while respecting that forces will make the decisions about what is right for their priorities.
“There is a wealth of stuff ongoing and we have to make sure we get it right from the interdependency point about how we make sure we deliver these programmes alongside the forces’ internal change programmes, as well as holistically how we create that standardisation.
“We’re not in the business of telling professionals everything they should do; there is a wealth of stuff within that autonomy as well as what we are trying to do with the national programmes.”
Join Ian Bell on the UKA Live webcast on 19th April to discuss "Making digital policing a reality: When to bespoke and when to commoditise - driving benefit from core commonality"
Also on the panel: Simon Parr – Business change lead at the National Enabling Programmes (Ex chief constable, Cambridgeshire Police); Jules Donald – CIO Essex / Kent Police; and Chris Doutney - Executive director, Civica Digital