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Interview: Mark Gray, director of digital transformation, Crown Prosecution Service

The introduction of fully digital services to improve stakeholder engagement is among the highlights of a world-first transformation initiative in the criminal justice system

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In what is claimed to be a world first in the criminal justice system, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is pressing ahead with a digital transformation strategy aimed at improving internal efficiency and interactions with external stakeholders, such as the police.

This year, 2019, is the final year of a four-year technology investment programme aimed at addressing the organisation’s legacy to support the plan. This includes the update and cloud migration of one of its key systems, alongside a number of initiatives around digitisation, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation.

“The core theme in the past three years has been getting the technology into the shape we need it in. That facilitates the acceleration of digital transformation and we’ve got those building blocks in place,” says Mark Gray, digital transformation director at the CPS.

Shifting the CPS case management system to the cloud from the datacentre where it has been housed in for the past 17 years is a key upcoming milestone. The migration of the organisation’s core platform, where its entire workflow is processed, is due to be completed in the next quarter.

“With the culmination of [the case management system] migration and future-proofing phase, that strand now becomes more business as usual and ever more transformational projects on top,” Gray tells Computer Weekly.

In addition, several other CPS applications are also moving to the cloud over the next few weeks, including Microsoft SharePoint, email access, printing, remote access servers and hard-media encryption software, Checkpoint.

The final stage of the core modernisation was preceded by a process of future-proofing CPS technology over the past couple of years, Gray adds, with supplier disaggregation and building an internal skills base to support the modern operating environment being additional highlights.

Handling multimedia evidence

Since joining the CPS in July 2016, Gray says the transformation agenda has come an “enormously long way” and the organisation can now be considered wholly digital. “We’ve certainly led the criminal justice system in that respect. All of our core business workflow, our core casework, is managed end-to-end digitally,” he says.

The digitised process covers all stages from the moment evidence comes in from the police. Information is managed throughout its lifecycle at the CPS, and is then passed on to the courts, the defence and the judiciary digitally, in an integrated experience, with interfaces between the relevant systems.

However, transformation has its challenges. A common issue faced by justice systems globally – the proliferation of different formats of evidence, such as CCTV images, body-worn cameras, mobile phone footage and social media records – is a key issue the CPS is aiming to tackle with its digital transformation.

To handle the growing complexity around multimedia evidence, the CPS team worked with the police, both as a whole and as individual forces, to set up end-to-end digital portals, which are being introduced via a phased roll-out.

“Technology has created lots of challenges for the criminal justice process through the proliferation of evidence. But it can also provide a solution to some of those challenges”
Mark Gray, CPS

Since the digital gateways went live in July 2018, about a dozen police forces are sharing multimedia material with the CPS through the portals, with just under 1TB (terabyte) being uploaded and 2TB downloaded daily. Digital conversion is carried out for any material that comes on a physical storage device and that object goes no further than the point of entry into the CPS.

“We believe we are the first [justice] organisation in the world to achieve that. It’s something we’re very proud of and it’s obviously been a challenging transformation,” says Gray.

“Technology has created lots of challenges for the criminal justice process through that proliferation of evidence. But it can also provide a solution to some of those challenges,” he adds.

Beyond the technology-led aspects, there has been a great deal of business-led transformation associated with the process, with internal CPS staff and stakeholders in the wider criminal justice system all having to adapt to the new ways of working. But Gray points out that the outcome of digital change, so far, has been largely positive both in terms of productivity and security.

“In terms of benefits, [evidence digitisation] just makes the whole process quicker as you no longer need that couple of days for the [storage device] to transfer around. There’s a significant security win because if you are transferring hundreds of thousands of discs around the country, one will go astray once in a while,” he says.

“Of course, such breaches have always been taken very seriously and are handled immediately, but that’s something a digital portal can eliminate,” he adds.

A core challenge when Gray started on the job was to eliminate paper, and that has been achieved. The CPS is very close to being able to say it has eliminated physical discs too: there’s more to do, says Gray, but the organisation is “making really good strides” towards that goal.

Emerging opportunities

Whereas the CPS has been making efforts to introduce “truly digital” processes, many are digital replications of former paper-based processes. That means another key area of Gray’s work has been taking an estate that has been designed for an offline world to something that is “digitally fit for purpose”.

An example of work towards that objective is the digital case-file initiative, where structured data will be supplied to the CPS upfront and will flow through the justice system without the need for paper forms that have to be scanned. Implementation of the system, which is a joint effort between the CPS and the police, is set to begin implementation in 2020 and Gray expects it to be an “absolute game-changer”.

In the short term, the CPS is looking at rolling out other improvements, such as screen sharing, instant messaging and video conferencing capabilities. Possibilities in the digital realm also include pilots that will explore how video can be used for different types of court hearings, something that has been discussed for some time. According to Gray, there are a few factors behind slow adoption of video for that purpose.

“The juggling of many, many balls at the same time is hard and government doesn’t have a great track record with delivering multiyear ICT programmes of this complexity on time. We’re going to achieve that, and that’s something we’re really proud of”

Mark Gray, CPS

“Some of it has been technical barriers around ensuring the quality of the video experience is sufficient, while some of it has been process barriers, ensuring that any video hearings and capabilities are introduced in a way that doesn’t prejudice either the quality or the gravity of the court process, that it doesn’t impinge on the defendant’s rights and that any court participant’s rights in the court hearings are not compromised,” he says.

When it comes to other opportunities where technology innovation could be helpful at the CPS, Gray is excited about developments around robotic process automation and artificial intelligence (AI) and is investigating tools intended to help police search and analyse digital evidence, with the first pilot due this summer.

“It’s automation without losing the key human value-add – the prosecutorial role, in particular, is one where human judgement is essential. That said, there are tools that can automate some of the repetitive processes that might sit underneath it and provide assistance to those making the prosecutorial decisions,” Gray says, adding that he doesn’t see the role of humans in the criminal justice process going away any time soon.

“Some of the judgments that are required in the criminal justice environment are much greyer than in other environments, including the civil space. So, this is the hardest jurisdiction in which to apply AI tools – hence we see them as more of a support to the human, rather than a replacement for them.”

Within emergent technology, chatbots also have a place in Gray’s digital transformation strategy, and the CPS aims to launch that capability for the IT service desk within the next six to nine months.  

Embedding the digital mindset

Digitally native processes also have their inherent complexities. According to Gray, there are intricacies around the evolution of the core purpose of technology, but the juxtaposition of existing systems and newer processes is even trickier to manage.

Overcoming such challenges, the IT chief says, is a matter of increasing collaboration and communication, with increasing training in a broader sense, rather than formulaic have-a-session-type training.

“When I arrived here, in keeping with many other organisations, the IT team was in a kind of ivory tower. Now we have a network of almost 100 digital champions across each area of our organisation and the lines of communication have increased,” says Gray.

“So it’s not somebody in a head office function trying to provide training. It’s much more peer to peer: recognising that individuals naturally have different levels of digital comfort, helping those who are quite comfortable with the technology to thrive and pick up the newest tools, and those who are less comfortable to come along that learning curve,” he adds.

Similarly to what executives leading digital change in the private sector would say, Gray considers the delivery of myriad intricate projects in a short timeframe to be the most testing aspect of his job, but his plan is on track.

“The juggling of many, many balls at the same time is hard and government doesn’t have a great track record with delivering multiyear ICT programmes of this complexity on time. We’re going to achieve that, and that’s something we’re really proud of,” he says.

“Trying to simultaneously achieve the technology transformation that you know is essential – but isn’t sexy for front-end users – and make lots of improvements for users, is quite a hard combination. But it’s one, touch wood, that we seem to be pulling off.”  

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