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INTERVIEW:

IT sector director tells police: “Put us under competitive pressure.”

New technology is accelerating the police service's ability to respond to the challenge of policing in a digital age, but Matthew Cooper, Global Offering Management Director at Hitachi Vantara tells Policing Insight the service should demand more from the different IT suppliers.

The police management of digital evidence is producing a lot of interest at the moment – is anything actually changing in the market or is this just the same police technology issue that we’ve been talking about for years?

Some of it is just a continuation of a very old story about police technology – but our experience of policing customers the world over is that the digital issue is intensifying. In part, that’s due to the police investing in new technologies, such as body worn video and mobile evidence capture but it also has a lot to do with the requirements of the citizen.

Across the world, the way that people live their lives has changed. The picture is inconsistent – daily use of the internet is twice as high in the Philippines, Brazil and Thailand than it is in France, Germany and Japan, but everywhere it is growing very quickly.

Often the greatest innovation can be found in small projects dealing with specific issues. They can deliver fantastic results but they lack the scale to produce a system-wide impact.

People are increasingly demanding to be able to live their lives online and to transact with public and private bodies in the same way. Every organisation is having to respond, whether that’s banks closing branches as the number of visits tumbles or policing living with victims and witnesses whose evidence is digital and who want to get it to the police simply, without having to hand over devices.

How well do you think that police organisations are coping?

There are some outstanding examples of police responding to precisely these challenges. But I often feel that the best ideas don’t always travel quickly enough. Notwithstanding the best efforts of initiatives like the Home Office Transformation fund, it’s still too often the case that learning doesn’t get shared as quickly as it might. In the UK, that’s already an issue, with just over 50 police forces, but in the USA, where there are around 17,000, that can be a huge issue. And if it’s difficult for ideas to travel between police organisations in the same country, getting them across international borders is an even bigger challenge. I could point to exceptional digital innovation in the US, New Zealand or Scandinavia that have really struggled to see the light of day in the UK. 

In that fragmented policing world, many people make the case for “mandation”: bigger programmes and central control – but there’s no shortage of recent headlines to suggest that it’s the bigger police projects and programmes that struggle the most. Are you proposing that there should be more central control even when the track record shows a dubious track record for that approach?

You’ve hit on one of the great dilemmas around police technology programmes. Often the greatest innovation can be found in small projects dealing with specific issues. They can deliver fantastic results but they lack the scale to produce a system-wide impact. And much of the innovation is confined to a single technology or group of technologies – for example devising a great system for just body worn video, when the reality is that the problem is the totality of digital evidence.

On the other hand, while major programmes have an obvious appeal, their track record on delivery has been very mixed. A combination of legacy, resourcing, skills, process and – yes – politics make it often very difficult to achieve the desired outcomes. The challenge of digital evidence is probably too extended, too complex and too fast-moving to be suitable for a large single programme or system to solve it.

So what do you think is the most promising approach?

The service should put us under competitive pressure: it’s the only way to develop an approach to digital evidence that is sufficiently dynamic.

Speaking as someone who has been supplying technology to policing for many years, you may be surprised to hear me say that the service should put us under competitive pressure: it’s the only way to develop an approach to digital evidence that is sufficiently dynamic.

This will be achieved by fostering an environment where suppliers enable collaboration – and say goodbye to the days of buying giant systems that we hope will last us over a decade. Imagine a police service that easily accesses one or more platforms, which it uses to buy software as a service from a dynamically changing combination of innovative suppliers: each making it really simple for their applications to allow data to move from one to another.

This highly flexible approach isn’t new to government: the UK Government Digital Service has been advocating it for some years. The GDS has saved government over £1bn with its approach to buying technology. If you look at the 12 principles on which the Technology code of Practice is built – make things accessible, be open and use open source, use open standards, share and re-use technology, integrate and adapt, etc…) you can see an excellent blueprint which is the equal of anything else in the world.

In a jurisdiction where the number of prosecutions has fallen to the lowest level on record, we need to level things up for the investigator. One of the key battlegrounds where we can do so is in the field of digital evidence management – where the police have real challenges, ranging from handling data from multiple sources to the challenges of the disclosure regime.

That sounds like an exciting future – but what are the first steps – and how do you avoid the mistakes of the past?

The first steps are difficult and it’s heartening to see the efforts that policing is making to get organised. Suppliers are often reminded of the very high proportion of police technology spend is devoted to simply “keeping the lights on”. The challenge for policy makers is to find the right balance between finding capacity for exciting new technologies – and catching up with criminal innovators, while keeping sufficient resource available to maintain continuity of existing services.

Different forces have demonstrated varying levels of ambition – and I fear some will have bitten off more than they can chew whereas others have set their sights too low.

We’ve learned a great deal as we’ve developed our Digital Evidence Management service: and we’re really happy to share that learning with the Police ICT Company. These are simple things… being very open about the overall strategy and direction of travel, listening to technology suppliers and consulting with them about strategy, involving the end user in the design of technology and creating space to incubate innovative ideas and products. There has been great progress in recent times, but here are still areas where we could see improvement: for example, in getting the senior operational leaders of policing more directly involved in its technology – something you see much more of in the United States.

After your two-year journey to bring a brand new Digital Evidence Management solution into the police market – from scratch – are you optimistic or pessimistic about the digital future of the police?

Well, our offering is for a global market and the balance of optimism and pessimism depends on the jurisdiction. There are areas in the world that are really struggling: the UK is doing relatively well. But there are challenges. Different forces have demonstrated varying levels of ambition – and I fear some will have bitten off more than they can chew whereas others have set their sights too low.

We will continue to try and develop deep, mutually respectful partnerships with forces – talking to everyone from the front line to the executive. Together, the best police service in the world and some of the world’s leading technology innovators have the clear potential to do great things. Of course I’m optimistic! 


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