Tom Winsor's first big speech as the new chief inspector of constabulary focused significantly on the poor quality of police technology. He described much of the equipment that officers have to use as "primitive", when advances in technology are being exploited to the full by offenders and organised crime. His message, to harness the capability and capacity of technology, means that the police will need to improve their approach to acquiring new technology in the first place.
Mr Winsor is not making a new observation. Despite expenditure of about £1bn a year, there have been many reports about the state of police technology, and examples of poor buying and implementation. In January 2012, for example, the National Audit Office concluded that £80m of expenditure on police mobile devices had not delivered value for money.
If there is to be a step forward, police leaders, the Home Office and police and crime commissioners (PCCs) need to understand and tackle the reasons why previous opportunities to use technology to its full potential have not always been fully grasped.
Focus on practical, achievable tasks
Questions such as whether the Home Office should take a stronger role in mandating frameworks or systems and whether the drive for improvement should come from forces and PCCs are important but they should not distract forces from focusing on the outcomes they want to achieve by using technology. Then they should explore new ways of buying and implementing it.
Assess the operational and financial benefits before buying
There are many reports into mobile which start with an assessment of which device to buy rather than what information needs to be made available to, and collected by, officers out on patrol. With mobile technology evolving so quickly, forces should be asking for a service that enables them to adapt rapidly to new opportunities, rather than asking for a specific product.
Dispel the assumption that police ICT needs are unique, and collaborate
There is an unwillingness in some places to adapt proven solutions from other sectors, or to collaborate with other forces. This leads to costly and lengthy implementations, and a fragmented policing service. Forces should have a presumption towards collaboration and use proven products, and should have to justify to the public and the inspectorate any decision to pursue a different option.
There are examples of forces starting to come together more frequently to create greater purchasing power and shared operational systems or infrastructure. The joint procurement of a new system by the "Athena" forces is perhaps the best known example, and several forces have come to market recently for shared hosting capability.
Successful collaboration means forces have to be prepared to make difficult choices about whether to adapt their operational processes in order to gain benefits from shared systems and procurements, which could lead to up-front costs and disruption before benefits are seen. Forces need to be open to new governance and data-sharing models, and create contracts with the private sector that provide mechanisms for sharing cost reductions as take-up expands.
Share ideas before procurement takes place
There can also be a focus during procurement on simply following the rules rather than getting the best outcome, which stifles innovation, prevents early engagement with suppliers and favours those suppliers who are good at selling rather than delivering. Forces should be finding ways to engage with industry that enables sharing of ideas before the procurement. They must also find ways to test propositions from suppliers – through visits, demos and pilots – during procurement rather than relying on a paper submission and presentation.
Technology can truly transform police operations, as has been seen with innovations such as automatic number plate recognition, which had a positive impact on intelligence and detections. There are many more areas where this kind of technological innovation can help the police to reduce and solve crime, but forces need to ensure that they have the understanding, processes and focus that allow them to buy the right technology that will truly make a difference.
Neil Amos is a policing expert at PA Consulting Group
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