Given that much IT procurement these days is about large-scale 'big bucks' projects, it is perhaps surprising to learn that despite the police market often failing to provide either of these aspects, it is still seen as one which holds substantial reward.
One reason for this is the prestige it displays within the larger community. A police force on a solution provider's books apparently serves as an added value, regarding how other prospective clients may perceive the business.
Reseller of high-level security for police databases, Braintree Security Software, lists Staffordshire Police and Central Scotland Police among its clients. Managing director Keith Marsden agrees that the police, being in the public sector, generally offers smaller, lower margin contracts for resellers than its more commercial counterparts, but maintains there are still sufficient gains in the long-term.
"There are certainly good vibes sent out to the wider community about these contracts," says Marsden. "And a lesser known police force is certainly very competitive with, say, a high-profile bank or pharmaceutical firm when it comes to the 'prestige' that the contract conveys."
It's a challenge
Marsden says one reason police work is held in such esteem is the fact there is not likely to be any data more sensitive than that which the police hold. Certainly, it seems security is a big issue within forces and this subsequently holds opportunity for resellers strong in this area.
This is backed up by Chris Durnan, sales director of security consultancy Peapod. "Police projects are often extremely technical sells, involving evaluations that make the lead time to confirmed order longer than one would like. Three months is what we aim for normally," he says. "They are often very competitive. Having said that, police contracts are very prestigious, particularly in the security arena, because they are so thorough in their selection processes."
This market is quite small when compared to others in the public sector such as local government, which has 550 or so local authorities. Like local authorities, police forces are Government funded and are subject to the usual audit processes and political wranglings. As in many public sector businesses, decisions are influenced by needs and cost, and UK police forces face many challenges.
In IT terms, none are greater than the fact that the police force is segmented into 43 different bodies in England and Wales. As a result, decisions are necessarily local and fragmented, with funding being a joint effort between the Home Office and local authorities.
A difficult balance
Within the Home Office, a specialist department - the Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO), controls all national procurements. PITO's role is to develop national IT support for the police, co-ordinate the development of local police IT systems and provide procurement services to the police across a wide range of goods and services.
On the whole though, forces make their own decisions about IT solutions, but reports suggest that this can sometimes result in duplication of effort and solutions, as well as waste of public resources and poor readiness for applications.
The fact that there are so many external factors influencing the IT needs of the police means forces need to balance up their requirements with those of the entire criminal justice community. This, broadly speaking, comprises the police, courts, Home Office, Crown Prosecution Service, probation and prison service.
Since Labour came into power in 1997, policies have been in place to enable the IT systems of all of these bodies to be intercommunicative. This has opened up opportunities for technologists.
Piers de Havilland, criminal justice manager at European network integrator and solution provider Telindus, believes the UK police is a growing market for technology and solution providers, with forces demanding a large amount of mainly planned, specialised IT applications and general network requirements.
He says: "Police forces need to balance their requirements with those of the criminal justice community, which is increasingly working collaboratively."
Overall, de Havilland claims, the police need a responsive local supplier which can tailor a bespoke solution and which complies with PITO standards and national application demands. "As with many fragmented organisations, each individual police body has distinct IT requirements which means bespoke solutions are necessary," he says. "The police can not be considered as a 'one solution fits all' target market."
Getting it right
Solution provider and IBM reseller Unilink Justice does around 30 per cent of its business with the police. Managing director Francis Toye believes that despite the police being a niche market, it is a growing one.
Recently, PITO itself set up the National Strategy for Police Information Systems (NSPIS) initiative, which aims to introduce standards across the IT spectrum for all forces. However, these are generally seen as recommendations rather than obligations and the process of all forces switching to NSPIS products is widely seen as being a slow process.
Yet Toye believes the police have good intentions and are keen to use more efficient, low-cost technology to enable them to spend more resources on the job in hand - crime reduction. "It's certainly a difficult balance for the police," says Toye. "They want to do and be seen to be doing the right things in terms of crime reduction, but they also need to make investments in purchasing the right solutions to be able to do this better in the future."
Toye highlights that approximately 20 per cent of police forces still use a paper-based system for custody work. "This is probably because there has not until very recently been any effective alternatives," he says.
Toye is adamant that the police is a "fascinating" market if it is accepted that one can do it within a specific niche. "The police basically need a whole solution, not just a part of it," he says. "Given that only some of the forces have their own internal IT departments, and that their main goal is to run a criminal justice system, not an IT system, they want a firm to come in and do the whole lot for them. Prospective IT suppliers need to realise this and also be aware of the national framework agreement (through PITO) that the implementation must adhere to."
This is echoed by Karen O'Reilly, partnership relationship manager at NavTrak. "Solution providers must be aware of the PITO regulations which are very stringent and can cause procurements to take a long time to come to fruition," she says.
Solution providers and VARs need also to be aware that police forces may not always have IT departments in-house. "It could just as easily be the finance department or the procurement department, which may procure anything from tea to washing up gloves," says O'Reilly.
O'Reilly claims partnering with vendors that know the police market will "offer a more comfortable ride" for prospective resellers. "Police forces are very keen on adhering to the Government's 'Best Value' ethic now," she says. "Therefore, solution providers need to make sure their solutions exhaust this principle to the maximum before even getting to the tendering stage."
The police sector is not an easy area to tap into, agrees Dave Chalmers, European product and technology director at Stratus. He claims the software vendor has built up credibility through long-term relationships over decades to become a trusted provider of IT. "The obvious way to make inroads into this sector is to partner with established organisations such as Stratus that already have the experience and expertise," he says.
Another tip flagged up by Nav-Trak's O'Reilly, includes exhibiting to get oneself known at the annual ACPO Exhibition. "Attending any events such as this or, say, the Superintendents Association are great ways of networking and investigating at first hand what police forces are really looking for in terms of technology," she says. "Each force has different issues and problems it has to deal with and finding out about the particular one that a company is interested in pursuing will give it a good head-start."
Considerations when selling IT to the police
The Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO) is the main body which specifies the standards for all UK police forces to adhere to. It also strives for commonality between these standards.
Being a public expenditure process, all tenders for police projects must be advertised in the EC Journal. This typically takes three months for the tendering of any business and is thought to be no different for the police. This ties in with the Government's Best Value (BV) initiative, which seeks to gain the best value for the general public from any project involving public expenditure.
Justice and Emergency Services Information and Communications Association (JESICA), previously known as PITACSA, was renamed in February 1999 in a move to mirror the Labour Government's moves to 'join-up' government. This Group is especially concerned with generating closer collaboration between organisations in the emergency (police, fire and ambulance) and the criminal justice sectors.
Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO): www.pito.org.uk
Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO): www.acpo.police.uk
The Police Superintendents' Association: www.policesupers.com
Police Review - the independent weekly news magazine of the British police Web site: www.janes.com
This was first published in December 2001