The Police ICT Company, which started operating last month after a two and a half year wait, still needs £1.2 million to get fully up and running, chairman Nick Alston has admitted.
However the venture has been allocated “no new money” by the Home Office, according to Alston, who is also Essex Police and Crime Commissioner.
The company is waiting to hear if a bid for £1.2 million from the ‘Police Innovation Fund’ has been successful, having so far relied on a grant of just £183,600 from the fund awarded last January.
If unsuccessful, Alston will have to take the begging bowl round to police and crime commissioners (PCCs), asking for about £25,000 from each. Although set up by the Home Office, responsibility for it was handed over to PCCs in April 2013, five months after they were elected across the UK for the first time.
“We will be seeking clarity about funding…we’re hoping maybe more innovation money will be made available, or subscriptions for PCCs,” he says.
The money would fund a “modest” operation: “We’re targeting staff of about eight, some of them on secondment from police IT departments. There are more than 4,000 working in police IT departments up and down the country.”
Despite the uncertainty over the budget, Alston says he has been working “extremely hard” with senior police officers, IT staff, consortia and consultants to get his head around the complexity of the issues and the business case for the company.
“The pace will pick up once we’ve got the resources,” he adds.
Alston is optimistic in spite of the evident challenges. He says the company could help to save £300 million in the next five years through savings - and better policing - that could be achieved by rationalising IT contracts, improving collaboration and information sharing between forces and driving better deals with suppliers.
“Currently one company has over 100 contracts with police services, selling the same product,” he says, for example.
But at the same time, he estimates that £150 million in savings have been missed in the two and half years it has taken for the firm to launch. So why the costly delay?
Alston believes that the Home Office’s proposals for the police ICT company “failed a practicality test”. Then, when the department handed over responsibility for the scheme to the PCCs, their plans were “unrealistic and undeveloped” and “lacked clarity”.
It is “very complex topic and risk laden” to try to get 43 different forces and elected PCCs to work together, he adds.
“Then we had a disappointing and rather depressing change of Home Office officials dealing with it. I had just got to know someone then they moved on…the approach was not clear. For me it failed a practicality test. We have had to do a lot of work to get it into a shape where it will work and get agreement from 41 PCCs…it’s gritty and unglamorous work.”
Despite its difficult birth, the organisation is at least now operational. It has a website and seven board members, including three PCCs: Alston, who is a Conservative, South Wales’s Labour PCC Alun Michael, and Gloucestershire’s independent PCC Martin Surl. They are currently recruiting for a chief executive.
However, one month in, the venture already faces another major threat. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have promised to scrap PCCs if they form a government after the general election, due in just four weeks’ time.
Alston says he is “disappointed” by Labour’s stance, but insists the company could continue to exist, even if PCCs were scrapped. He says he has had meetings with shadow policing minister Jack Dromey to ensure the party understands the situation.
“The Labour party has indicated they’re supportive of what we’re trying to achieve,” he says. “The company could be novated to a joint venture. It is owned by PCCs but could be transferred to other policing bodies.”
Alston is clear that whatever the outcome of the election, it is vital the next government does not lose focus on pushing for a more collaborative, national view of police ICT
Easy prey for salesmen
“Remember, governments for over 30 years have failed to solve this problem. You’ve got to go back to the old PITO, the NPIA [National Policing Improvement Agency] and so on. They failed to drive a national approach to policing. Maybe, by taking small steps, we can tackle the issue,” he says.
The Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO) was a Home Office project launched in 1974, initially to provide a database of stolen vehicles. Its responsibilities gradually widened to include provision of national IT systems and services to police forces, for example the Police National Computer.
PITO was abolished in 2007 and replaced by the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), which had a remit of providing the police with expertise on IT and information sharing. However the NPIA failed to deliver promised savings or sufficient improvements to police ICT, and was repeatedly criticised by parliamentary committees. It was dissolved in October 2013 and succeeded by the Police ICT Company.
Why is there such a history of failure when it comes to centralising police ICT?
“It’s to do with governance, and who’s got the money,” Alston suggests.
“Were the police authorities asking the right questions? Some constables were not commercially orientated, were they easy prey for salesmen? Probably yes. It frustrated the heck out of Home Secretaries and thoughtful constables who want to improve it. Police forces lacked a strong commercial edge. They need a bit more discipline and challenge.”
The Police ICT Company’s first task will be rationalising contracts for software and “smaller systems” and working with forces bidding for the Innovation Fund to see if they can encourage them to collaborate.
The approach was successful last year, with five East Midlands forces jointly buying body-worn video, Alston says.
The team is also working through a list of contracts up for renewal both nationally and locally in the coming two years to see if they can help shape requirements and “drive more commercial performance”.
Effective procurement is “absolutely key” to making sure this approach works, Alston says.
‘A big step’
The issue that needs tackling is not so much technology but information flow, ensuring the various forces share intelligence and information by default, according to Alston.
“It’s not about mandating one size fits all, but about clarity and enforcement of standards. We must stop chief constables buying stuff just because they like it or have been persuaded by salespeople.
“It’s about information architecture, determining priorities, clarity of design. We want an environment where it becomes not the required thing to do but the obvious thing.”
One step that could help would be to bring the various police forces’ budgeting and investment cycles into sync.
“All the big forces are investing at different times. It’s not a great time to launch the company, Greater Manchester, the Met and others are investing lots at the moment, we can’t corral all of that.”
It is clear that the Police ICT Company will need much more support from the Home Office, politicians and the individual police forces, if it is to succeed – or indeed even survive.
Alston must feel daunted by the task: trying to help forces save hundreds of millions of pounds while improving their technology and processes, supported by just eight staff with no allocated budget and a highly uncertain future for PCCs.
“Do I feel nervous about what we’re doing? Of course I do. This is, in a way, a big step. But on the other hand I’ve seen the failure over decades to get to grips with this. To fear failure would be foolish. I’m not going to allow those who’ve worked very hard on this to take criticism from people who failed to do better.”