The level of crime and the number of police officers patrolling the streets were among the most important issues in the run-up to last week's general election. But away from the politicians' soundbites the police face an equally important challenge: updating IT systems and improving data sharing to help prevent and detect crime.
Police IT systems were thrust into the spotlight after the murders in Soham of Holy Wells and Jessica Chapman. The resulting Bichard Inquiry found gaping holes in police information and intelligence sharing.
Following the recommendations of the Bichard Report, all police IT departments have to meet a national timetable for the introduction of national information and intelligence sharing.
By the end of this year the government expects police forces to have set up systems to share information about suspects and convicted criminals, according to the Police IT Organisation (Pito). The system, called PLX, is a cross-referencing system that will handle information sharing.
Additional plans for a new national police intelligence system have also been outlined, although progress on this has been slow. For the most senior IT professional in the UK's largest force, the shake-up of police IT requires a rethink of how IT projects are managed.
In an interview with Computer Weekly, Metropolitan Police director of information Ailsa Beaton said, "Everything in the public sector has a public accountability that you do not get in the private sector. In public sector IT, a lot of the failures come from business change."
It is a point Beaton feels in a particularly strong position to make. She has recently been promoted to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner's management board of the London police force after five years heading IT, but her background spans 20 years in the private sector and consultancy, specialising business change projects that had an IT component.
As well as the IT infrastructure and office processes you would find in any business, Beaton is responsible for the Met's 999 communications service and command and control centre; police intelligence systems; video surveillance, including covert operations; and IT's growing role in gathering evidence.
In an update of the 999 emergency service, Beaton is responsible for leading the biggest change programme seen in the force, consolidating operations, re-engineering processes and putting in new systems.
Despite the improved status of IT in the Met, the challenge for the department, if it is to meet national targets for intelligence and information sharing, is daunting. Beaton admitted the Met was not starting from the best place.
"There are some forces in England and Wales which are hugely further on than the Met, and that is not because information and intelligence is not important in the Met - it is very important - but we have never had the information strategy, the investment, the infrastructure to be able to put the kind of information systems in place that you need to have all the information that you have got at your finger tips and be able to deliver that to where it is needed."
Beaton added that when she joined the Met five years ago the IT department did not have an IT strategy. She said the sheer scale of the organisation means that it is more difficult, more expensive and more complex to create the systems described in the Bichard Report. "We are up against what is possible with technology," she said - a smaller organisation does not have the same difficulties.
Beaton suspects the government has underestimated the work needed to create a national cross-reference system. "If some of that information is in free text fields and there are several million of them, we have to get the information out. The Met has got the information and can work with it, but being able to pass it on to other systems? We have some significant work to do."
She said the force had to balance funding major information and intelligence programmes against other priorities, including political demands to put more officers on the beat. But she said the Met was very supportive of meeting the requirements.
"I have to flag that one of the big issues around IT for us is funding," Beaton said, although she stressed that she was not commenting specifically on the Bichard Report. "It would be jolly handy if they thought about the cost of doing that and where the money is going to come from."
There is also a question mark over the role of Pito. As the Bichard Report pointed out, the organisation has no powers to make police forces adopt particular systems or strategies and cannot direct their IT spending.
"It does not have the remit to be the information services outfit to deliver service to the police service as a whole," said Beaton, who is an Association of Chief Police Officers representative on the Pito board. "It needs to have the remit and to build up the trust in the people it serves that it is completely dependable."
Pito's remit is being reviewed by the Home Office. The outcome was due in February, but has been delayed until after the general election. Beaton's promotion to the management board has bolstered the status of IT. "Being a board appointment is recognition that information is a key factor in where the Met goes. It is needed to get the buy-in from peers."
Beaton's first five years at the Met were focused on delivering infrastructure - she is in the final stages of a tendering process to consolidate IT support to a single consortium. The next five years, she said, will be about making information available and helping the organisation to turn information into serous bits of intelligence, which requires a cultural change.
In this, media attention to public sector IT can also be a blessing, she said. "All the publicity around the IT projects that have gone wrong is a great help to me in trying to convince people that they need to pay attention to this."
Curriculum vitae: Ailsa Beaton
Ailsa Beaton is director of information for London's police service. In addition, as a member of the Association of Chief Police Officers for England and Wales, she is a board member of the Police IT Organisation and sits on several national strategy and programme boards. Beaton went into accountancy after graduating but has since spent more than 20 years working in IT roles, including time as chief information officer at ICL, senior partner at PA Consulting Group, and various sales management and technical support roles at General Electric in the US. Beaton's directorate provides information, communications and technology services to more than 40,000 police officers and staff of the Metropolitan Police across 694 locations, including Scotland Yard. These services cover: l Technology and communications infrastructure l Information security l Information systems and services l Technology-enabled business change l Emerging technologies deployed in policing activities l Evidential analysis services l Call handling and demand management services, including all 999 and non-emergency calls to London's police service. The resources she commands include 2,500 police officers and staff and annual budgets of £210m revenue and £106m capital.