By Tony Collins
Police IT is supposed to have undergone a transformation over the past 13 years, thanks in part to a Home Office national police IT programme called NSPIS – for which Securicor Information Systems was awarded contracts worth more than £140m.
NSPIS contracts awarded in 1999 included:
- Case preparation: acquisition and delivery of forms, photographs, police reports, statements and other materials required in court for trying cases.
- Custody: booking in, tracking and monitoring of individuals held in police cells.
- Command and control: coordination and management of police operations.
- Crime: analysis of case histories and crime statistics.
With some reluctance, dozens of police forces took NSPIS systems with mixed success. The national transformation did not happen, though large sums were spent. NSPIS [National Strategy for Police Information Systems] was followed by another national IT-led transformation programme ISIS [Information Systems Improvement Strategy].
Now the government plans another police IT-led transformation. It is setting up a new company to improve police IT [as if the last so-called transformation programmes had not existed].
In a joint statement, the Home Office and the Association of Police Authorities say the new company will give strategic ICT advice to forces and procure, implement and manage ICT solutions for forces.
The company will “help police forces to improve their information technology and get better value for money from contracts”.
The police ICT company Ltd is now owned by the Association of Police Authorities and the Home Office but will be handed over to police and crime commissioners following elections in November.
In setting up the company Nick Herbert, the policing minister, says
“While some police IT is good, such as the new Police National Database, much of it is not. There are 2,000 systems between the 43 forces of England and Wales, and individual forces have not always driven the most effective deals.
“We need a new, more collaborative approach and greater accountability, utilising expertise in IT procurement and freeing police officers to focus on fighting crime.
“By harnessing the purchasing power of police forces, the new company will be able to drive down costs, save taxpayers’ money, and help to improve police and potentially wider criminal justice IT systems in future.”
Chairman of the Association of Police Authorities Councillor Mark Burns-Williamson says that when the new company is handed over to police and crime commissioners “we want it to be fit for purpose and efficient in delivering IT tasks”.
The aim of the new company, says the Home Office and the Association of Police Authorities, is to “free chief officers from in-depth involvement in ICT management and enable greater innovation so officers have access to new technology to save time and ensure better value for the taxpayer”.
Police IT in a poor state?
UKAuthority.com reports that Tom Winsor, the new chief inspector of police, is “staggered” at the ineffectiveness of police IT.
Giving evidence to MPs he said
“I was staggered when I did my field work, in the police pay review, at just how low-tech the technology of the police is in volume crime and so on. It is extraordinary. They have computer screens that resemble those that we saw in the early 1980s. I mentioned the police officers doing their own two-finger typing and so on.
“It is the most extraordinarily archaic system. I think it is part of HMIC‘s role to expose inefficiency – and that surely is massively inefficient.”
Winsor said he had watched police officers standing in a queue for up to four hours at a time to book in a suspect. The private sector would not tolerate such delays, and would quickly change the system, he said.
With 43 forces buying their own IT it seemed sensible for the Home Office to try and introduce national systems. As Neil Howell, the then IT Director at Hampshire Police Authority, said in March 2006, there was “political pressure to take up some systems – e.g. NSPIS Case and Custody ” but some national systems did not “match current level of functionality or requirements …”
In the NHS, several national IT-led transformation programmes preceded the NPfIT, but nobody in power wanted to know about the past when NPfIT was launched in 2003.
An extraordinary effort – and money – went into NSPIS but police forces resented being told what to buy and in general were happy with own IT choices. Many were particularly happy with NSPIS rival systems from Canadian company Niche.
Perhaps the Home Office should accept that, apart from natural national systems such as the Police National Database, Automated Numberplate Recognition, and the “Impact” intelligence sharing system, police IT is too complicated to be done nationally.
Mandating rarely works
Mandation rarely if ever works in the public sector. The Home Office and its agents cannot tell 43 autonomous police forces what technology to buy and implement. Public bodies can, and do, circumvent mandation, sometimes by simply ignoring it, as National Audit Office reports point out.
The Department of Health tried to tell trusts what to buy under the NPfIT and that didn’t work. Like police forces NHS trusts are largely autonomous.
Governments don’t have memories when it comes to failed IT-led transformation programmes. It may be good for civil servants and suppliers to learn new skills and experiment with IT on recycled transformation programmes.
But should suppliers learn at the expense of taxpayers? And should new ministers and civil servants keep launching new and exciting IT-led transformation programmes that fail as miserably as the last – giving excuses for a replacement set of ministers and civil servants to renew the cycle?
The Department of Health has finally learnt that what’s needed before the launch of any major IT-led initiative is a frank appraisal of what has gone wrong in the past, and what can be learnt. The DH achieves this in the “Impact Assessment” section of its latest IT strategy. It’s not beyond the wit of police forces, the Home Office and the Association of Police Authorities to follow the DH’s example.
Unless they do, perhaps David Pitchford’s Major Projects Authority at the Cabinet Office should think twice before allowing large sums to be spent on new police IT.