Hieronymus Ukkel - Fotolia

Police forces struggle with complex IT and a lack of digital skills, says watchdog

The latest report from police watchdog HMIC discovers that a lack of skills in digital and complex IT systems are major challenges for modern police forces

Police forces lack the digital skills needed to make use of technology and are struggling as a result of the sheer number of IT systems, according to the police watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).

Mike Cunningham, an inspector of constabulary at HMIC, said digital work in policing “is too often about exciting technology projects, rather than identifying the best technology to support a fundamental and coherent plan to transform services”.

The findings follow the annual efficiency inspection, which assesses how police forces use their resources and their plans for using resources in the future.

The report said the public expects to be able to access services online, and digital skills are becoming an increasingly important part of police work. However, it said policing is less advanced than the private sector when it comes to adopting digital technology and working practices.

A lack of skills in police forces remains a problem, with the report saying that “digital skills remain a significant gap”.

“Disappointingly, very few forces are developing digital skills in their workforce, and none are taking full advantage of the skills that police staff, PCSOs and special constables and volunteers can bring to forces,” said the report.

“Some [forces] are using the digital skills of existing volunteers, but none are recruiting volunteers specifically to access these skills.”

Henry Rex, programme manager for justice and emergency services at TechUK, said the police must urgently develop new skills and capabilities to tackle modern crime.

“It is critical police forces develop a robust plan for identifying and addressing the skills gap in forces. The tech industry stands ready to work in partnership with the police to ensure they have the appropriate resources, capabilities and digital skills to implement such a plan to combat crime in this digital age,” he said.

Read more about IT in policing

The lack of skills is not the only weakness identified in the report, with inefficient and complicated systems architectures throughout police forces being a cause for concern. “Too many forces have large numbers of individual, bespoke legacy systems that only a small number of individuals know how to maintain,” said the report.

It said more thought needs to go into IT architectures to prevent further problems. “Continuing to invest very significant amounts of money in devices and systems that their ICT architecture cannot handle is too common,” it said.

Reducing complexity off-the-shelf systems would help remedy some of the problems, according to the report.

It said although the Police ICT Company – which the government announced in 2011 would replace the National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA) – has achieved some positive results, “it lacks the mandate and resources to bring about the level of change it would wish to in this area”.

The Police ICT company was set up to save police forces up to £465m a year through the central provision of national IT systems,

“It is essential that police and crime commissioners and chief constables commit to working collaboratively with the Police ICT Company to bring about radical improvements to the use, procurement and role of information technology systems, especially in relation to their interoperability,” said the HMIC.

Read more on IT strategy