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Not-so-smart policing

Source: Public Sector Executive Sept/Oct 2013

John Biggs AM chairs the budget and performance committee on the London Assembly. He talks to PSE about the recent review into the Metropolitan Police’s legacy IT.

A lengthy cumulative failure to upgrade IT systems has led to the Metropolitan Police spending the majority of its technology budget keeping old and increasingly redundant equipment going. This has had a huge impact on the effectiveness of its front-line productivity. 

The London Assembly warned that this misuse of resources has even led to a higher crime rate in the capital. ‘Smart Policing’, a new report by the Assembly’s budget and performance committee, sets out the areas the Met must focus on to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the force.

PSE spoke to John Biggs AM, chair of the committee, about the need for change. 

Keeping the lights on 

The force currently spends 85% of its IT budget maintaining old technology – which is simply unaffordable. By 2016, the Met’s total budget will be reduced by 20% compared to 2013, according to the Police and Crime Plan 2013-16. There are 750 separate IT systems, 70% of which are already redundant. This figure is set to rise to 90% by 2015. 

Furthermore, the force aims to reduce the running costs of technology by £60m in three years, with more police working remotely and exploiting existing data. 20,000 mobile devices are to be introduced over the next year. 

The committee found that not enough had been done to introduce new technology into the force, and set out recommendations around mobile handheld devices, social media and even predictive crime mapping to help the force improve. 

The report highlighted that the Met often went “straight to a technical solution”, before properly working through the problem they were trying to solve, or making better use of existing technology. More training and better leadership, as well as greater collaboration, will also be needed to make the best use of IT both new and old, and to provide oversight and strategy for its implementation. 

Playing the market 

Biggs said: “They’ve got a lot of ancient and unmaintainable technology and they have had a jackdaw approach to improving their systems by selective innovation. Their current position is not sustainable, both for budgetary reasons but also because the effectiveness of policing is compromised by the effectiveness of IT.” 

It was “for them to answer” how feasible it will be to invest in new technology in the face of budget cuts and stretched frontlines, he added, but pointed out that the maintenance and productivity benefits of better IT would quickly outweigh the capital cost of such a move.

“It’s a mixture of innovation and playing the market effectively. The nature of the IT business has changed since we got these big old contracts commissioned. We now can have a better IT platform with lower maintenance costs.” 

Silos and strategy 

Smart Policing focused solely on the Metropolitan Police, but evidence suggests that IT costs are way above average in the capital. Biggs said: “It’s not strictly comparable, but nevertheless it’s a very expensive service for what we get.” 

The traditional build-up of multiple systems and out-of-date IT is mainly down to a lack of strategy, he suggested. “Historically the police force has been quite siloed. The world’s moved on and the police force needs to move on with it.” 

Failing to keep up with the latest technology was part of a wider trend throughout the public sector, and the force needs to “recognise that the old approach is no longer working”. 

The mass of separate systems around IT is down to incremental procurement over the years, with individual IT solutions for individual problems, and a lack of a holistic strategy. 

“It’s a lack of focus, a lack of corporate thinking about IT. You have a system and you don’t get round to it.”

Clunky information 

But the need to re-engineer the police’s IT systems “is now urgent”, Biggs said. “In terms of the frontline delivery of services, the lack of productivity that flows through some of this clunkiness of the systems is quite astonishing. 

“If you arrest someone it takes 12 different entries of their name on the system; if it takes you half an hour to log on in the office there’s clearly something wrong.” 

IT is now a key management resource for the flow of information, Biggs said, which can be used to provide more cost-effective services. Good investment in modern technology could help to deliver better outcomes by improving this efficiency, but getting it right can be complicated – it can’t just be technology for technology’s sake. 

Biggs said that there’s been a historical neglect, siloed thinking and perhaps “a general fear” of modern IT in the force. Thinking can become “institutionalised and fossilised” in the police and shaking it up could have a real impact on the delivery of frontline services.

But as younger officers go up the ranks they can see far more clearly that “what’s on offer isn’t working”, especially as they become more accustomed to using technology in their personal lives. 

Tool up

Social media is also a key way for forces to use the latest data to improve communication and services, Biggs said. Both internal and external dialogue can speed up front-line operations as well as improving public trust in the police. 

“Using social networking in disseminating information, in helping to manage incidents, in learning from the riots for example, where the police were caught rather flat-footed – it all shows that the police service has to be alive to social networking. 

“In the information age you need to tool yourselves up to that and there’s all sorts of criminal activity and risks with IT. The use of IT tools can massively increase productivity.” 

“A bit of risk-taking is required by the police”, Biggs added, citing results from pilots of successful social media campaigns. The more information the public get to see from the police, the more they can understand and trust the service.

“Dealing with infinite amounts of information out there, the police need to think about how their management and flow of information should best interface with that, because if you use modern technology and social networking methods then people will be open with you if you’re relatively open with them. 

“It’s part of the process of building better networks of trust with people, which will improve the effectiveness of policing.” 

Predictive mapping 

As apps become increasingly sophisticated in both personal and professional fields, technology can achieve more and more, including mapping and analysing patterns of risk and crime. 

Biggs said: “Predictive mapping is quite exciting; it’s being piloted in Manchester and the USA. Using IT to look at patterns of crime and attempted crime you can help to isolate areas or individuals which are worthy of attention in a way that you couldn’t without computing power.

“But those new systems can’t be integrated with the old steam-engine systems which currently exist in the police force. It’s another reason why we need to update. 

“Quite often institutions are in denial about the challenges of change and get very defensive. 

“We’ve found the Met are open to the needs we challenged them to change because they recognise there’s a big payback. 

“They recognised that you can make a virtue out of necessity – operating on smaller budgets and the fact that you simply cannot continue on the current systems. 

“There must be better ways of doing it and indeed we think that there are.”

A Met statement said: “We welcome the report and its recommendations and we are pleased to note that the committee feels we are moving in the right direction.”

Recommendations for the Met 

1. MOPAC must ensure the Directorate of Information has the skills and resources to implement the Met’s ICT strategy

2. The Met must provide more detail on plans to reduce the police ICT budget, identify risks with this and how it proposes to manage them, as well as explaining its intention to engage with other forces

3. MOPAC should explain how its role on the board of the Police ICT Company is benefitting the Met

4. The Mayor should explain what action has been taken to ensure collaboration across London’s emergency services and what he intends to do by 2015

5. The Met should update the committee with initial findings from mobile technology and predictive crime mapping pilots

6. The Met should develop coherent policies and guidance for officers on social media use

7. MOPAC should work with the Met to establish the necessary level of investmet into ICT and how it will be funded

8. The Met’s Technology Investment Board should provide the committee with progress updates on the implementation of the ICT strategy

9. MOPAC should explain how it will update Londoners on the Met’s plans to use new technology in the future


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