Flexibility and a big stick for police

Police IT: Offering choice while enforcing standards puts the Home Office's latest approach to integrating police information systems on a strong footing for success

The police service in England and Wales has established a comprehensive strategy for IT systems to give officers access to national intelligence and information, but it is so far steering clear of a massive national procurement programme of the type unfolding in the NHS.

"Creating a national body to buy key ICT products and services for the whole of the police service is impractical in the short term," said a spokesman for the Information Systems Strategy for the Police Service (ISS4PS).

The strategy, backed by the Home Office, the Police IT Organisation (Pito), the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities, does set a long-term goal of creating a single agency to co-ordinate procurement of IT, but it does not set any timetable for this to happen.

In the meantime, police forces will continue to be able to buy the IT they want within a standard set of criteria for ISS4PS conformance.

This localised approach has been welcomed by the police services. Chief superintendent Rick Naylor, president of the Police Superintendents Association, said, "This is a ­major step forward. We will have a national network so that individual forces can acquire applications, so long as they are interoperable."

The ISS4PS is designed to overcome the barriers to information and intelligence sharing highlighted by the Bichard Inquiry that followed the 2002 Soham murders.

Naylor believes the police are now in a better position to do that. "We will be able to meet the requirements of ­Bichard faster than if this strategy had not been delivered," he said.

The Home Office and successive home secretaries were criticised by Bichard for failing to take the lead in developing an intelligence system for the whole of the UK.

Plans for such a system had been laid down in the National Strategy for Police Information Systems in 1994 but were dropped in 2000.

In March last year, Bichard published his final report, which detailed the government's promise to introduce the new system, dubbed Impact, during 2007. However, by November the Home Office said it would put back delivery of that system until 2010.

The ISS4PS has more immediate aims, describing in detail the steps necessary to create systems that will underpin national intelligence and information sharing between police forces in England and Wales.

Structuring data, defining core appli­cations, creating an information base on technical standards for sharing data - including XML and service oriented architectures - are all addressed. These and many other standard approaches to data and technology are described in a 100-page document.

It is an impressively detailed statement about how to tackle the problems of police IT, said Georgina O'Toole, senior analyst at research firm Ovum.

"It goes into a low level of detail, but what it is still missing is how this will be enforced," she said. "Police forces all like to do their own thing and that is what Pito has fought against for years."

As it stands, then, the strategy is not designed to address the toughest problem in creating national intelligence systems. "

The police service must go through a process of harmonising business processes This strategy does not specify how this will happen, but rather it removes any technical barriers to the harmonising of business processes," the document says.

O'Toole said this is where the biggest challenge will lie, because forces are possessive of the processes they have built up over many years. "Generally it will be a case of deciding where best practice lies, and convincing police forces that their way is not the best way.

"But I am sure they all think their way is best. It is just because of how long they have been doing it that way. They are used to working as a local force and understand local issues and they feel the way they work is best for the community they serve," she said.

Naylor agrees. "The major challenge is getting 43 forces to buy into it many will still be tempted to do things their own way. Some of the most advanced forces will feel like they are taking a step back. Others will need help to catch up," he said.

The National Policing Improvement Agency is the new Home ­Office body which will be charged with harmonising processes across police forces in England and Wales.

Crucially, the Police and Justice Bill will give the agency powers to impose technology and processes on forces that do not comply with national standards from April 2007. At the same time, it will take over managing national technology standards from Pito.

"The NPIA is coming in, and that is what gives this strategy a better chance of working," said O'Toole.

Naylor put it rather more starkly. "If forces do not do it, police authorities or [the NPIA] will be able to force them to from above."

However, he believes police forces have learned a lot from negotiating with government over the aborted plans to merge forces. "There is a lot more will to do it now than there was a year ago. We have got to act more corporately."

Although, with the backing of the NPIA, the new police IT strategy may carry a big stick, it also wants to demonstrate its own effectiveness to forces.

On the long-term goal of national IT procurement, the strategy says, "One of the issues that a procurement authority will need to tackle is one of trust.

Police forces will naturally be wary of such an organisation on the grounds that it may not procure in line with local strategies, it may not supply the value for money that local knowledge may be able to provide, and it may act slowly.

Thus, the central procurement authority must be implemented gradually, learning the best way of doing things and gaining the trust of the forces and suppliers."

This gradual approach to standardisation, combined with mandatory power, appears to give the new police IT strategy a greater chance of success than its predecessors and could be a lesson for other government IT projects.

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