22nd May 2018
A positive picture in digital policing
Steve Thorn, Executive Director, Digital, Civica discusses how police forces are working towards the right balance between standardisation and flexibility in their digital systems.
Police forces are increasingly using digital technology and automation, with observers noticing a sharp change in recent years as growing numbers of officers around the UK use mobile devices and apps to communicate and to access and update data while on the beat.
It’s leading to increased innovation in the use of digital systems and devices, helping police forces to become more flexible and enabling more collaborative working both internally and with a range of public agencies. However, with continuing financial constraints, it’s imperative that investment is well targeted, and interoperability is maintained between systems for effective data sharing.
There’s a real challenge at the heart of digital policing: striking the right balance between standardisation to support data sharing and saving on costs, while also offering the flexibility to tailor systems to suit local needs.
This provided the focus of a UKA Live discussion which I recently took part in, joined by Simon Parr, business change leader for the police National Enabling Programmes and former chief constable of Cambridgeshire Constabulary, Jules Donald, chief information officer of both Kent and Essex Police, and Richard Thwaite, lead on IT landscape mapping for the National Police Chiefs Council. Our debate raised a number of related issues and made abundantly clear that the one thing police forces cannot afford to do is stand still.
The panel agreed that, historically, there have been too many bespoke IT systems in policing, which has undermined interoperability and often tied forces into technology solutions which have constrained them financially and not always been helpful in achieving outcomes.
In addition, with plenty of standard processes in policing, it doesn’t make sense to develop similar solutions individually for 43 police forces. Rather, there is a need for systems with a common blueprint that are more easily replicable.
But, the counter-argument to this is recognising that a ‘one size fits all’ approach would not work: every constabulary faces local demands and priorities, and needs to ensure solutions that are sufficiently agile to accommodate these.
Meanwhile, nationally we need to see the right balance between providing standardised solutions and giving forces the flexibility around processes where local influences are much stronger, as well as the ability to innovate.
Progress is being made under the National Enabling Programmes, led by the National Police Chiefs Council, which are strategically aligned to the Policing Vision 2025 to provide foundations for digital communications, mobile technology and better collaboration between forces. One of these involves the development of a national core platform for Microsoft Office 365 which can be configured locally and integrated with other applications.
Standards and APIs
There is also a growing recognition – which was highlighted in the discussion – of the importance of standards and open APIs. These are crucial for data sharing and collaboration in areas such as criminal investigations, arson recording and analytics; and they can provide the foundations for a range of mobile apps for officers on the beat.
The key benefit is that crucial data can be entered once and made accessible for all officers with a legitimate need, who in turn can update it as needed. More widely, the ability for forces to work on a common and increasingly cloud-based platform will enable benefits to be shared with others and supporting multi-agency working.
Big challenges are looming in developing these standards and the digital solutions for using the power of data. Richard Thwaites said that in the past the police have had a poor track record in delivering such solutions; with Simon Parr commenting that some have been over-specified, subsequently constraining their local flexibility. “We need to stop over-bespoking and start to ask ourselves what we actually need,” he said.
The development of the Emergency Services Network, which will replace Airwave as the prime communications channel for police, ambulance and fire and rescue services, will also create what was described as ‘an accreditation hurdle’ in connecting systems. While this will bring its own challenges, they should not be insurmountable for any police force.
Encouraging signs are emerging, with a growing interest in common platforms which can be configured, rather than customised, to a range of police processes – especially in the back office. This is also underpinned by the growing maturity of cloud services.
The overall message is that things are moving in the right direction. When asked whether digital policing become a reality, in-line with the Policing Vision 2025, our panel was optimistic. There is now a ‘coalition of the willing’ to not just find solutions, but also ensure that they are implemented and win the support of people at all levels of their services.
In turn, this is promising major operational and financial benefits which could give policing a very different, and more productive complexion by the middle of the next decade. While the outlook presents some challenges, we can be very positive about the future of digital policing.