When the government announced that a new police-led, privatised company called the Police ICT Company would take over from the doomed National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) back in 2012, there were murmurs of discontent but also positivity surrounding the move.
On the one hand, it was a welcome opportunity for policing to finally be able to get better services and better deals, but on the other, a private company would be tasked with handling public sector affairs, which didn’t inspire much confidence.
Launched in 2015, the company is owned and funded by its members – meaning that it isn’t ‘private’ in the same way many may have initially thought. Its members include 42 police forces of England and Wales, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the British Transport Police and the National Crime Agency.
Since its launch, the organisation has gone quietly about its work but has more recently announced the appointment of the former CIO for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire Police forces, Ian Bell, as its new CEO, along with a string of commercial deals.
Bell tells NS Tech that one part of the company’s focus is to find the right deals for police forces in “substantial areas” where policing can “consume IT as one”, but he emphasises that policing remains autonomous.
“What we do have at times is frustrated vendors who say ‘please help us, we’re doing well – we’re selling our product into 27 different policing organisations, how do we reduce the complexity in the way we sell our services’.
“We also have bigger vendors who see policing as a cash cow, so we have to ask how we restrict that, how do we lock them down with some transparency, and get a better deal,” he says.
In March, the company announced that forces across England and Wales could sign up to a national mobile telecoms deal with network provider EE. The deal is designed to save forces money by aggregating demand. A similar agreement was put in place with analytics software provider Chorus Intelligence, which the company claims could save forces a cumulative total of 1.5 million hours each year. It is now in discussions with a number of other technology suppliers.
Back when the Police ICT Company was still just a concept, the annual IT bill for policing was £1.2bn; Bell believes this has reduced in the years since to about £800m to £850m, including shadow IT costs. The intention to reduce this spend remains the same – the company aims to save in the region of £56m in the next three years.
This requires the organisation to build a foundation and come up with common standards for forces to follow. Then it requires scrutiny of the applications used by forces.
“We’re still unruly in the way we invest in applications; we need to take a holistic look at that and identify common functions in a way that we deploy an application. We have 43 forces in England and Wales, and we engage with 50 law enforcement agencies across the UK and Ireland and most of those have 400 to 650 applications,” Bell says.
The aim is to slash this number down considerably.
But while this is a sensible aim, the Police ICT Company needs to be wary that it doesn’t turn into another version of the NPIA.
Bell says that there are big differences between the way the two organisations operate, but most importantly the Police ICT Company is taking a step-by-step approach, rather than trying to change everything swiftly.
“We need to be able to walk before we run, and identify the importance of national programmes and how we get them landed, transitioned and see the benefits of them. Once we’ve done that we can have step-by-step profiles and take on services. We have no desire to end up like the NPIA but I think we’ll be in a different position in a way that we can strategise,” Bell states.
Central to this shift is the ability to introduce new technologies into police forces.
“The future is around what’s happening with wearables, facial and biometrics and it’s about IoT, the future of analytics, so we need to ask how we can bundle that and consume and deliver that in the least complex way possible,” Bell explains.
“I look at the fantastic work by Lancashire Police and we’re finally seeing the integration of commercial tech and delivering technology with a purpose, with the work they’ve done with Alexa, and what’s what we should be doing – not these big luddite systems that we’ve had in the past,” he adds.
But there’s plenty of work to be done, with data quality and governance at the top of the agenda.
“We should be in a position where we have collaborative data pools, have good information that goes to our mobile facilities and off-the-shelf commercial technology and allows us to access and use the data in a way we’re expected to – this is where we want to be different from the NPA – we should be helping reduce demand, not increase demand and complexity,” he says.
Bell and the Police ICT Company have their work cut out, but it finally seems as if progress is being made three years after the company launched.