Friday, 10 February 2012

UK Police deployment of mobile technologies under surveillance

An £80 million Home Office programme to mobilise the UK’s police forces was broadly criticised in a recent report from the National Audit Office. In this month’s Smartalk, Steve Reynolds examines its findings and explores what went wrong.

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) into an £80m Home Office programme has underlined the pitfalls of effectively implementing mobile technologies into public services. The programme gave BlackBerrys and other mobile devices to police forces across the UK but the report showed that just one in five of these forces used the new technology efficiently. It even revealed that three police forces ended up with more devices than officers.

It’s my opinion that this is because the whole programme was fundamentally flawed. By being based only on the procurement and deployment of mobile devices, most forces will have been hampered from the outset. All deployments should have been based on mobile applications which practically complement police functions, such as crime reporting, vehicle checking and some traditionally office-based paperwork - because mobile devices alone would not deliver any significant benefit.

The NAO’s report indicates that in the vast majority of cases this wasn’t considered.

It should be acknowledged that there were success stories, noticeably in the Thames Valley Police Force implementation, and also that there wasn’t an equal split of funds across all of the UK’s forces. In fact only three of the UK’s 42 forces received the full 100 per cent funding, four received 90 – 100 per cent, and the London Metropolitan – the UK’s biggest police force – received just 34 per cent. The amount allocated might also suggest how much of a priority technology was for the different forces.

Business cases were rushed and constructed predominantly around the delivery of devices, failing to adequately consider how forces would use technology. There was a broad policy decision to “simply procure and deploy” mobile devices, without exploring what deployment actually meant. A robust analysis of individual force requirements and associated budgets could have helped shape projects, together with better dissemination of information from pilots and trials systems.

However, some benefits were enjoyed, with one in five police forces claiming to have used the technology to improve effectively. Since being deployed, officers in some regions have spent more time out in public. There have also been strong examples of process improvements and increased effectiveness via a set of applications to support duties: conducting people and vehicle checks, submitting crime and intelligence reports; all of which means spending less time obtaining information from control rooms.

Thames Valley Police did much to supply centrally located information into the field, improving efficiencies and allowing officers to be more proactive. Although these examples are now dated themselves, it reinforces the need to concentrate on specific processes.

Unfortunately it seems that this information wasn’t shared as an example of best practice, or it was shared and not prioritised, or there simply wasn’t budget available to replicate these processes elsewhere.

Less successful implementations may have suffered due to a basic lack of engagement and top-down senior level buy-in. Openness and collaboration would be a good starting place to address these fragmented deployments, with best practice guidelines drawn up and widely shared.

For all the mobile technology investment, it bears repeating that police forces shouldn’t place all their eggs in the public network basket; particularly not for mission-critical processes and applications. An inquiry into the July 7th terrorist attacks on London revealed that police and fire services were over-reliant on public mobile networks, which caused problems for the emergency services. Private digital radio systems such as Tetra should be the relied upon in times of crisis.

To resurrect the programme, a concerted effort to share best practice is required, led by those seven forces which made it work. Also helpful would be consideration of existing ICT systems within forces, ensuring a fully integrated solution rather than numerous cumbersome mobile add-ons.

The NAO report explicitly advocates consultation with the private sector for guidance; a sector with greater experience in the technologies and their implementations. We should encourage more substantial knowledge transfer activity between the public and private sectors at each stage of such high profile programmes. Disjointed approaches have time and again produced mixed results and wasted public funds.

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