Three years after the Bichard Enquiry into the Soham murders called for the urgent introduction of a national IT system to support police intelligence, the Home Office has created the agency it claims will have the power to make such a system possible.
Last week the government ended more than two years of limbo for police IT. After the publication in 2004 of a Home Office policy document, Building Communities, Beating Crime, the government proposed a new National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA), which was launched on 1 April.
The NPIA is charged with taking control of national IT strategy in the police forces, effectively absorbing the operations of the Police IT Organisation (Pito).
Although the Home Office policy document suggested Pito was in line to be superseded, the final nail in the coffin for the organisation came when the Home Office published the independent McFarland report in June 2005.
The report said the structure and organisation of police IT in general lacked clear definition or purpose, resulting in confused lines of responsibility, and was almost certainly poor value for money.
The chief executive of the NPIA, Peter Neyroud, has said that by creating a consensus with police forces and having some powers to mandate IT strategy over police forces, the new agency would succeed where Pito had failed.
"The failure of Pito stemmed from an absence of space where objectives could be agreed with the National Policing Board. By working with the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and the Association of Police Authorities (APA), we are much more a part of police forces," he said.
Neyroud said mandatory powers would be a last resort in getting police forces to comply with standard IT and business processes, but said he expected strong grassroots support in any case.
One reason for this optimism is that forces are now signed up to the Information Systems Strategy for the Police Service (ISS4PS).
Last year, Ailsa Beaton, Metropolitan Police CIO and one of the strategy's chief architects, told Computer Weekly, "Because we have people's buy-in to this common way forward, and because it is very much the raison d'être of the NPIA, there is no other game in town. We are signed up to do it."
Although the creation of the NPIA may foster new optimism for police IT, there have been setbacks.
Plans for a national cross-referencing system for intelligence, a stepping stone to a full national intelligence system, hang in the balance.
Neyroud said that the cross-referencing system, dubbed Crisp, would "probably not" continue because of the priority to deliver a police national database. The database will enable intelligence sharing under the overall Impact national intelligence programme.
Ovum senior analyst Georgina O'Toole said the Home Office may be cancelling Crisp because it had not achieved its efficiency targets under the Gershon agenda.
"I am guessing that the Home Office budget could reflect that they have made efficiency savings outlined in the spending review. I cannot comment if the efficiency savings have gone as far as they could, but if they had gone further they would not have to cut things like Crisp. It shows how they are linked."
But O'Toole said the schema for handling intelligence data agreed as part of Crisp would provide the foundation of the national database. "The view that Crisp was a waste of time is wrong. The work is still necessary for the police database," she said.
"The nature of IT in the police service is that they have an ingrained culture. They hang on to the way they develop things and think standard processes are inappropriate for their communities."
She also said that the NPIA's ability to place its staff with forces to aid the implementation of a national system would give it a great advantage over Pito. "Pito was often seen on being on the outskirts of forces," she said.
Although the plans for a national police database have been put back from 2007 to 2010 by the Home Office, O'Toole said that the project looked on track to meet that deadline.
"All the police forces want this, but they have struggled to put resources in place to get data in order."
She said forces were now signed up to the guidance on the Management of Police Information, which was necessary to marry data from different forces for both Crisp and the national database. The guidance would be implemented by 2010, she said.
But she added that the greater challenge for the NPIA would come when the organisation moves from approving locally determined IT purchasing to creating a national procurement agency. "That will be far harder for forces to stomach," she said.
Elements of the impact programme
Management of Police Information
Code of Practice and associated guidance underpin the Impact Programme. They set standards for police information management and give police forces practical guidance for achieving those standards. Agreed by forces to implement by 2010.
The Cross Regional Information Sharing Proposal is a system for cross-referencing and information-sharing between forces. Funding is under review by the Home Office and the system is likely to be scrapped.
Police National Database
The culmination of the Impact programme will be the implementation in 2010 of a national database of operational information across England and Wales.
Creating a one-stop shop for police information, the national database will allow structured and unstructured searching on data about people, objects, locations and events held by forces in local systems.
It will subsume the functionality currently provided by the Police National Computer.
Source: the Home Office, Ovum
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This was first published in April 2007