At a time when forces and law enforcement agencies are faced with significant budget constraints whilst also being asked to do more in new costly aspects of policing, collaboration has some prizes that are worth aiming for.
However, getting multiple organisations to agree to work together or provide services to one another is difficult. Achieving this will depend on setting the right collaboration strategy. This means police leaders need to clarify why, what type and where they want to collaborate and then make sure the right conditions are in place to take it forward.
Despite the efforts of new national technology programmes, when you look across the UK there are still many forces and national organisations duplicating investment in pretty much the same new capabilities such as data exploitation, digital forensics and cyber.
Collaboration in policing isn’t new. For decades forces have had arrangements in place to share resources in response to critical incidents. However, in recent years examples of collaboration between two or more forces have increased. For example, Regional Organised Crime Units, shared procurement units, a growing number of police and fire collaborations and many local partnership initiatives with local authorities and health.
There are also some forces such as Devon and Cornwall and Dorset that are exploring a merger whilst Police Scotland represents integration of multiple police forces at a large scale. Additionally, there has been a growth in national technology programmes trying to coordinate investment and delivery of new capabilities as well as technology suppliers driving collaboration through the ability to integrate their systems across forces.
However, many initiatives struggle to produce the expected benefits. There have been examples of Lancashire pulling out of the North-West Motorway Patrol Group and claims that the National Police Air Service is not financially sustainable.
Additionally, despite the efforts of new national technology programmes, when you look across the UK there are still many forces and national organisations duplicating investment in pretty much the same new capabilities such as data exploitation, digital forensics and cyber.
Part of the problem with collaboration, is that when you get past the headline strategy it is quite a complex activity to work out how two or more organisations might work together. I have spent that last 10 years working on collaboration initiatives in forces, national law enforcement organisations and government agencies. Based on this experience there are 3 key questions that need to be answered if a collaboration is to progress:
- Why are you collaborating – save money and/ or more joined up information?
- What type of collaboration do you want – capability development or operational service delivery?
- What parts of the organisation will you focus on? Successful initiatives tend to start with IT functions jointly developing new capability, integration of support services and integration of operational information.
Collaboration to save money tends to require the integration of people, activities and organisational units (including technology delivery programmes) to enable them to do things once rather multiple times.
It essential that all parties understand why they are collaborating and the benefit they are likely to realise. There are usually two reasons for collaboration: saving money or joining up information. The benefits of joining up information tend to come from integrating technology, whereas collaboration to save money tends to require the integration of people, activities and organisational units (including technology delivery programmes) to enable them to do things once rather multiple times. One challenge with collaboration is that it is not always clear which of these drivers is important – being explicit about this can save a lot of time and effort later on and prevent confusion.
What type of collaboration?
There is no shortage of police and crime plans that talk about collaborating with partners and many Home Office led strategies that mention partnerships across law enforcement. The challenge here is that there is often confusion about what type of collaboration people are really talking about. Collaboration across two or more organisations can take several different forms. For example, it could be about jointly developing a new technology capability, providing a service from one organisation to the other, integrating operational units or sharing data. These are complex areas and so it is essential that there is clarity on what type of collaboration organisations want.
There are two initial choices for any collaboration: Are you going to work together to build new capabilities or work together to deliver a service? Collaboration initiatives can get confusing when you mix the two although they should recognise there is always going to be a close link between developing new capabilities and delivering operational services especially on digital capabilities.
Where to collaborate?
It is rare that two organisations will look to collaborate on everything. Instead you need to pick the right functional areas that will deliver most benefit and where there are aligned priorities.
Once you are clear on why you are collaborating and what type of collaboration you want, there are then choices to be made on where exactly in an organisation to collaborate. It is rare that two organisations will look to collaborate on everything. Instead you need to pick the right functional areas that will deliver most benefit and where there are aligned priorities. It is also crucial that you understand what aspects of each functional area you will look to collaborate on – people, structures, activities, information, technology. For example, it is quite possible to integrate the information and technology aspects of a public contact function whilst retaining separate people and structures.
That gives a wide range of potential areas to collaborate on. The areas where I have seen most success and are a good place to start have been:
- Jointly develop new digital technologies. Each force in the UK is undergoing some kind of digital transformation. Building new data exploitation capabilities, digital channels to interact with the public and new capabilities to store the increasing volumes of data. The digital policing portfolio is making good steps forward to develop some of these capabilities nationally and then sharing them. There are also significant opportunities for more collaboration between national agencies that are investing in similar new capabilities. There will always be some resistance to the centralised development of new capability. Claims of operational requirements that are unique to a single organisation. But cost pressures and the scale of some of the new capability requirements mean that this must be done jointly.
- Integrate support services. There are already some good initiatives developing here but still too many transactional activities and systems that are being repeated across 43 forces in areas such as fleet, HR, finance, procurement, training and IT. According to Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, forces spend an average of 20% of their operating budget on support services. That was around £2.7bn in 2016/17. There are some significant potential savings to be made from building new ERP capabilities once, automating the transactional services and delivering them from centralised teams.
- Share information for operational units. Collaboration efforts for operational units should be focused on information sharing. That comes from IT systems that can exchange data with each other and common platforms. National programmes are putting in enablers through new infrastructure and databases such as the National Law Enforcement Data Service as well as several groups of forces now using the same interoperable information systems such as Athena or Niche. Information sharing doesn’t have to involve large complex IT programmes. Start small. Set up some experiments to exchange data between organisations, exploring the legal and policy issues early and demonstrating the benefits.
- Don’t start with integrating operational units. Whilst sharing information between operational units can help to join the dots, the temptation to create centralised operational units should be resisted. There has been a tendency to call for centralised units especially for more specialist capabilities (eg Surveillance, Cyber or Major Investigations) or in response to new threats. The problem here is that there is usually more demand for specialist capabilities than supply and so the pooled resource gets prioritised. This results in the resources being pulled towards the most significant national and international threats and inevitably forces (usually the non-metropolitan ones) will lose out.
Creating the conditions to succeed
Once the why, what and where to collaborate choices have been made, the really difficult bit begins – persuading enough people in each organisation that it is worth it.
Once the why, what and where to collaborate choices have been made, the really difficult bit begins – persuading enough people in each organisation that it is worth it. There are many conditions that need to be in place for collaboration to succeed. Most importantly it needs backing from the top (PCCs and Chief Officers); ownership from middle management who want to do it; the ability to deliver something tangible within the first year; and a commitment to invest the time in building relationships and understanding across multiple organisations.
Collaboration is a key part of the future vision for policing. It offers an answer to some of the financial challenges, allows forces to keep up with advancing capabilities and joins up information to deliver better outcomes to the public. Getting there will require police leaders need to make specific choices on collaboration and to set the conditions for a change in the shape of police deliver for years to come.