Police ICT reforms evade detection

Home Office plans to make police more accountable will make police ICT less accountable, and at a time when it is becoming in the words of Lord Wasserman, the man behind the reforms, “the key to fighting crime”.

Chief police chief Sir Hugh Orde has already made the simplest connection between technology and jobs, warning overspend on databases means underspend on neighbourhood coppers. But Orde, Wasserman and Home Secretary Teresa May have been slow to factor a more important trend into their plans to make police more accountable: more police technology will lead inevitably to more policing by technology. Yet their plans to privatize police technology are designed to deregulate it too.

Their own deliberations have been less accountable than their talk of accountability would suggest. Now at least six months since Wasserman’s guidance on police ICT was being distributed to senior officers, the Home Office has refused to release it under Freedom of Information, telling Computer Weekly it didn’t exist.

Wasserman, Orde and May have meanwhile been promoting its unpublished recommendations and on 4 July officially announced its core proposal, the privatization of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), the quango currently responsible for police ICT. But there is still no documented justification of what seem like half-baked plans.

Wasserman got busy punting the plans on the policing conference circuit soon after their original publication deadline was missed last December and got settled into his seat in the House of Lords. The revised publication deadline for his recommendations nevertheless slipped again in June. May is said in Home Office records to have been reading initial guidance since December. MPs have meanwhile been denied the opportunity of scrutiny.

Andrew Love, Labour MP for Edmonton, asked in May for Wasserman’s terms of reference to be placed in the Commons Library, along with correspondence and minutes of his meetings with the Home Office. Policing minister Nick Herbert fobbed him off. The papers did not appear.

Wasserman himself refused to appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee, its chairman Keith Vaz MP complained as the committee considered the government’s police reforms on 12 July.

Even if he was willing, Wasserman couldn’t answer MPs that day because he was busy promoting his reforms at a conference of criminal policy wonks. He stood in “at very, very short notice” for Herbert, who had taken ill, and defended the plans against critical reports that had appeared that week in these pages.

The Committee had to make do with Sara Thornton, chief constable of Thames Valley Police, who shared a podium with Wasserman the day before at yet another conference. She was therefore more familiar with Wasserman’s plans than MPs, so filled them in.

The other conference honoured with a briefing on the reforms was a “discreet” City Forum where Wasserman also shared a podium with industry bigwigs Paul Sellick, public services director of Steria, and Bob Quick, chief executive of police consultants Bluelight Global Solutions (of which more later).

Wasserman told the conference how urgent it was that the Home Office carried out his reforms, as trailed by the Home Secretary on 4 July, which involved giving suppliers (like Steria and Bluelight) shareholdings in a privatized NPIA – shareholdings, that is, in the same company that awards their contracts.

Thornton told MPs how Wasserman had told industry how his reforms relied on removing the Home Office remit over police ICT – making it less accountable, you might think. You would be right. Another central plank of the reform was making police ICT unaccountable under the law.

“If it was set up as a company, it could then be exempt from EU rules about procurement, which could make the whole process much speedier because it would be acting like a commercial company. I think that is the proposal,” Thornton told MPs.

Police chiefs knew even in February of Wasserman’s plans to turn the NPIA into a “GovCo”, a private company over which the public sector retained part-ownership. A summary of his proposals has been on the Association of Chief Police Officers’ intranet since 8 March. Two days later, Wasserman was promoting them at the Home Office-backed Policing 2011 conference.

All this made the policing minister’s confusion before the Home Affairs Select Committee about what was and was not part of the reforms seem conspicuous.

When Vaz pressed Herbert on 28 June over the question of a GovCo, he insisted firmly, “No. There is no plan for a Government-owned company”. Just to be sure, he promised that the House of Commons would be the first to hear of the plans when they were at last published.

Six days later, the Home Secretary broke the news at the annual conference of police chiefs that the NPIA would be turned into a GovCo after all. The actual plans remained unpublished.

With all this unaccountable tinkering going on, the police service might be relieved to know Wasserman’s on the case. As “Personal Adviser to Prime Minister and Home Secretary”, he explains on LinkedIn, he has been charged with making the police service “more accountable to local communities” and “freeing it from interference from bureaucrats in central government”.

Even Bill Bratton, the US supercop the Prime Minister wants to lead London’s disgraced Metropolitan Police, knew of the plans last December, when Wasserman chaperoned him on what was for the sake of this episode in British policing his Westminster debut.

Bratton ought to have known anyway. Wasserman, who Bratton employed at the New York Police Department in the 1990s, has based his reforms of police procedures on the methodology with which the latter earned his spurs.

That’s the CompStat system of data-based policing, in which cops allocate resources to hotspots on crime maps and, crucially, are charged with reducing and not merely detecting crime. That means prevention, and will revive, in conjunction with the liberalised procurement of police technology, concerns about a surveillance society.

Not that there are necessarily concerns with CompStat alone, it being little more than data.gov combined with some sort of Six Sigma process improvements. Though it interesting to note even former MET chief Lord Blair punted the Home Affairs Select Committee with the CompStat line on behalf of Bluelight, the police consultancy he now chairs. And when the policing minister introduced Bratton at a his sort-of-debut last December (where the idea of Bratton’s leading the MET was floated) Herbert sang the praises of both the US cop and those of his methods Wasserman had incorporated into his unpublished but much promoted police reform plan.

But Wasserman’s GovCo, of which we have now learned just a smidgen, is moving against the tide of accountability, knowledge and transparency that has swept in these other reforms. It’s hard enough already to get information about police ICT out of the Home Office, even under Freedom of Information or with the power vested in our elected representatives. Imagine how hard it will be to hold the burgeoning progress of police technology to account when it’s managed by a private company.

See also: Cabinet Office collars Liberata as NPIA police data deal crosses open source policy