CIO interview: Ailsa Beaton, director of information at the Metropolitan Police Service

Between security preparations for the Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee next year, and leading technology counter-terrorism operations, Ailsa Beaton found time to talk to Computer Weekly about her IT challenges...

Metropolitan Police CIO Ailsa Beaton has a lot to keep her busy. Between security preparations for the London Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations next year, leading technology counter-terrorism operations, and being on the board responsible for creating an IT body to replace the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), Beaton found time to talk exclusively to Computer Weekly about her IT challenges.

On the way to meet Ailsa Beaton, there's a telling exchange between two police officers in the lift. "What's the latest news on the NPIA?" asks one officer. "I don't think anyone knows at the moment," comes the reply. It's a conversation that reflects a sense of uncertainty about the co-ordination of IT functions across the UK's police forces.

As IT lead at the Association of Chief Police Officers, Beaton has the difficult task of helping to create a strategy for replacing the NPIA with a police-led private company, a move announced by home secretary Teresa May in July. Due to her position, Beaton says she can't comment on whether closing the NPIA was the right decision, but agrees the NPIA had matured into a well-regarded body for providing IT projects across forces.

"Its closure was a political decision, and my role is to make sure whatever happens next succeeds. The expectation is that the ICT functions will move to one body. It will decide how to get the balance right through a mixture of in-sourced and outsourced IT functions. It will also look at the benefits of delivering more ICT centrally," she says.

The NPIA currently holds £600m a year in contracts and it is not yet clear who will foot the bill once it is wound down. "There is an issue of the centre putting more costs on forces, which will make the overall reductions they have to find much larger," says Beaton.

One of those contracts is the recent roll-out of the Police National Database (PND), which connects all local intelligence databases onto one system. "With the PND we have a whole raft of capabilities we didn't have before," she says. Although access is provided through a bureau due to confidentiality issues, Beaton says she wouldn't rule out the idea of officers being able to access the PND remotely.

Cost cutting with IT

Despite 3,000 jobs estimated to be lost at the Met Police within four years - which will include 1,907 officers as well as special constables and backroom staff - the Met's IT budget of £300m per year is set to remain intact. But Scotland Yard will be expected to do more with IT for the same amount as previous years, says Beaton.

This has pushed IT operations in new directions. "In areas where we could save significant amounts of money we've been forced to become 'bleeding edge', as we don't have time to see if these things [such as the cloud] work, we have to just go ahead and find savings," she says,

The Met is also moving towards more shared services, working with the Greater London Authority and Transport for London on voice and data networks, when a PSN [public services network]-compliant network for London goes to market.

The force has also undergone a re-negotiation with its main outsourcing supplier Capgemini, which holds 81% of all the department's contracts in a deal originally signed in 2005. The new agreement was signed last year and is expected to save £43m over five years.

All IT functions below confidential level are outsourced. It was the Met's choice not to outsource "top secret" functions following previous government drives for public sector bodies to outsource all non-core functions, says Beaton. Outsourcing at the time was still seen as a still relatively immature model.

"That said, there are government departments who are moving such [confidential] functions to an outsourcing model. And we are now starting to think about the next generation of outsourcing," she says. Higher-level, confidential work could be outsourced once the Capgemini contract ends in 2015 and the new ICT police-led company is up and running.

"Conversely, we may look at moving more things in-house. But I very much doubt that is a feasible option, as we are more geared toward outsourcing, having done so for a number of years now," says Beaton

There are pluses and minuses to having one provider take the lion's share of all contracts, she says.

"Having a single supplier means the responsibility lies with them, so there is at least someone you can hold by the throat. But the drawback is that to some extent you are putting all your eggs in one basket. I'm sure when we look at the next-generation outsourcing we will be looking at the pros and cons."

Long service

Beaton joined the Met 11 years ago, having previously worked as CIO for IT supplier ICL and as a senior partner with PA Consulting Group. Since being at Scotland Yard she has won the BCS IT Director of the Year award and picked up an OBE for services to policing in 2010.

IT has moved to take a more central role in the force over the last 10 years, she says. One striking example of how technology has had a direct impact on the way police operate is the recent issuing of handheld computers, enabling officers to spend more time on the beat. Another is the use of the Met's intranet, which has become a critical business function as a portal through which officers receive their daily briefings.

The next big change will be a new command and control system for the force, says Beaton. "I am very much aware that my P45 could be on the line with this. It is important because it is the system that co-ordinates someone calling for help and the police officer turning up," she says.

"At the moment the system is 30 years old. So we are deciding whether to buy a brand new one or keep the system but upgrade it to make it more modern." New functionality will include an ability to map and transmit video feeds, she adds.

Going for gold

Perhaps the biggest job facing the Met Police at the moment is preparation for the Olympics, which has been dubbed the largest ever peace-time security operation. But Beaton says the IT strategy behind the security programme is a pragmatic one.

"We're using technology that is tried and tested rather than bringing in a lot of new capabilities," she says. Such an approach has the double benefit of risk mitigation and being cost-effective, she adds: "There are three new control rooms, but otherwise it will involve an extension of already existing infrastructure."

The other main security area Beaton is involved in is the technology behind counter terrorism, as the Met is the national lead on a strategic intelligence network designed to improve the way key intelligence is shared and retrieved across forces.

And if all that isn't enough to keep her occupied, she is also contractually obliged to do 200 hours a year of front-line police work, currently with the Met's traffic team. "It's made a huge difference using the systems from a service point of view, there are things I've asked to be changed based on my experience of being a user," she says.

So once the various security preparations and IT restructurings are over, what's next in her career path? "I would like to go back to the private sector at some point. I think there is a lot I could bring with all my experience," she says.

"But having said that my experience of the public sector hasn't been so bad that I wouldn't consider working in another public sector organisation."

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