Ten years on, the police are still having to win support for national IT systems
In the 10 years since the police service first had the idea of building a national IT system for criminal intelligence, frustration at the floundering progress was mainly confined to the officers themselves and the IT specialists taking an interest in the programme.
However, in June this failure was exposed to a wider arena as a major weakness in the British force. The Bichard inquiry into the murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in Soham, which caused a national outcry, found police intelligence systems seriously wanting.
"The disparate development of different local IT systems, many of which do not communicate with each other, has inevitably led to difficulties in accessing relevant information, which has in turn resulted in poorly informed decision making. Police forces need to address these problems urgently where they exist," the inquiry report said.
The failure was shocking but it can be explained by the approach to police IT procurement in the UK. Police forces remain locally accountable for their IT strategy and purchasing while the Police IT Organisation (Pito) co-ordinates and commissions national systems.
But Pito's lack of power over police forces' budgeting and management has hampered the creation of national systems and standards and helped lead to a fundamental review of its operations and future.
In an exclusive interview, Phillip Webb, Pito chief executive, told Computer Weekly, "We have responsibility and accountability in rolling out national police IT systems, but we do not have the authority. Post-Bichard, I think we are seeing a greater appetite for that, but for many years there has been no real drive to do that."
To produce a national system, Pito must get the support of 43 forces across England and Wales, each with their own processes and ongoing IT investments, Webb said. "Often we work very hard with the forces and get the consensus, but then six weeks later the situation changes and we start to drift apart. Maintaining the consensus is the problem."
This, in part, explains the history of failure in building a national intelligence system for the police. Plans for such a system were laid down in the National Strategy for Police Information Systems in 1994, but were dropped in 2000 as police chiefs had difficulties agreeing a national intelligence model which would place intelligence at the heart of policing.
Only now, following the Bichard report, are forces agreeing a common understanding of what intelligence is and how the police should use it, before going on to build a national IT system to support it.
"We are working with the police community to identify what they mean by intelligence and that is in the process of being completed, and will be delivered at the end of November," Webb said. Only then can Pito put together a business case for Impact, the planned national intelligence system supported by the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers.
But Pito's lack of mandate can still hamper effective implementation of a national intelligence system. "It is an issue," said Webb, but after Bichard, "people recognise that this is a fault which needs to be corrected. I am getting a far greater level of support than we have ever got in any other programme.
"The key problem is not getting people to agree that it is the right thing to do, it is getting them to agree to do it in the timescale because there are so many other things to do. It must be seen as the highest priority in terms of the change the police have to go through," Webb said.
Another barrier to implementing national systems is that, because forces have different investment cycles, some will inevitably have recently bought new systems and would not be keen to write them off. "This is a big problem," he said. "Getting the balance right between value for money on a national scale and on a local scale is very difficult."
It is almost inevitable that perfectly sound national IT investments may look like a waste of money at a local level, said Webb, but systems such as Impact would be of little use unless it is truly nationwide.