As Chris Price completes his three-year contract as CIO for West Midlands Police, based in Birmingham, he tells CIO UK about the scale of changes needed and being made in UK policing, and its use of information and technology.
West Midlands Police is the UK’s second largest force after London’s Metropolitan Police. Its range, depicted on a large map in Price’s office, includes the once famous manufacturing heartland of Britain, with cities such as Birmingham and Coventry, but also rural communities up to the border of Staffordshire. The force has 200 staff under Price in the ICT and Information management team.
“A lot of what we do is maximise the resources that the organisation has and the best way to do that is through a better use of information,” Price says of his department. Information and technology needs vary across the region depending on the communities being served and the type of policing, whether it’s the counter terrorism unit (the second largest in the UK) or a dogs unit.
The force receives over half a billion pounds a year from the Home Office, but since 2010 has had to make major cuts, like all police forces to its costs base. Currently there are 43 police forces in England and Wales. Scotland has unified its policing into a single force as part of its modernisation and attempts to rein in costs.
“Historically we have all been very autonomous and now the current administration has created 43 Police and Crime Commissioners and, of course, there is empathy with the police and the badge,” Price says of the often county by county basis of police forces.
CIO UK’s public sector columnist and expert Jerry Fishenden has remarked regularly that communities resist consolidation beyond the county borders in all areas of the public sector.
Not only is there a high number of police forces, but the larger ones like the West Midlands Police and the Met in London are often answerable to a large number of oversight committees. In October 2013 CIO UK looked at the Smart policing: How the Metropolitan Police Service can make better use of technology report from the London Assembly. Tony Westbrook wrote:
“The report contains at least 14 named groups, organisations and committees that have either had input or would be affected by the actions of any new CIO.” Price explains that although the Met has a higher number of scrutiny bodies providing oversight, the sheer diversity of services and communities that a force serves today create this plethora of groups. The needs of communities in Solihull are very different to those in parts of Birmingham, for example.
“I did a count; we have 10 governance structures from local capabilities, the Police and Crime Board and our new Commissioner. It is a complex landscape. It is understandable that we are under these spotlights,” he explains.
Prior to the existing government coming to power West Midlands Police expected to make savings of around £40m over a four-year period, however the coalition required a cut of over £126m. “That is a fair old chunk in anyone’s business,” Price says.
“How do we invest sensibly to reduce our cost to serve? Through the better use of technology and information, and we have done a lot of the heavy lifting through restructuring. For example, we no longer have 20 command units. What we are trying not to cut is people on the beat,” he says of the traditional Bobbies on the beat voters demand.
But at the end of his contract, Price is honest, there is still a great deal more to do within policing and police technology in particular. “There are tremendous challenges. The forces are very traditional in the way they do things. Some practices are from the dim and distant past. But, they are very interested in change,” he says of the new reality of policing.
“If you were building police technology today you wouldn’t build it that way,” Price argues; a common mantra of CIOs that have inherited major infrastructure legacy and practices.
“Some of the back and middle offices are ripe for consolidation. Take HR for example, and there are forces, such as Cheshire using Capgemini, to take over roles like staff rosters.
“Collaboration is strong in the police. Some regions do it very well and this force has a good level, but the size difference of forces can be a barrier,” he says of why shared services have not grown as much as hoped.
Not only do forces need to consider new ways of working together, like other parts of the public sector they also need to reappraise how they procures and uses technology. “When I came in it was for my commercial experience and to drive that expertise into the organisation. It was about being sharper in how we dealt with the supply side. They must make a profit, but I have terrible reservations about making an exorbitant profit.
“The policy in the UK of having 43 autonomous forces has created a market of product suppliers. If I have system X and Staffordshire has system Y at the local authority border, it can cause operational difficulties, such as having different custody systems,” he explains of the interoperability challenges he and his fellow police CIOs have. He adds, though, that the Met is working on applications that systems integrators could enable for a wider range of forces.
Technology’s role is, as in any organisation, to improve the police while reducing cost. In 2011 Price created the West Midlands Police Information Services Strategy around the idea of an integrated technology and information strategy, which has resulted in the rationalisation of 200 legacy applications.
As well as reducing the number of legacy systems, Price has been focusing on how technology, in particular mobile technology, can improve local policing. “Police officers have what I call an elastic band that means they continually go from and return to the police station to access systems. So how do we mobilise the information they need? We are still paper-driven, and that leads to huge inefficiencies with data quality, so we need much more single point of entry information. And we need to surface that information at the point of use so that we are mobilising the police station experience. But some of that information cannot be seen on the street.
“A beat officer comes in and has a briefing and is told there are people the police want to ‘meet’. Why can’t we make that available on mobiles?”
Not only do police CIOs need to take police processes out on to the street, but the operations of the police station need major modernisation.
“We need to move away from cassettes for interviews to digital. At present we send the interview off to be transcribed as our experience is that voice-recognition software is only 80 per cent reliable, so a force is not making much of a saving.”
Price is also investigating the idea of national cloud store for CCTV evidence so that barristers can be sent links to evidence rather than copies travelling back and forth. Again there are complications with multiple types of codex.
In November 2012, the new Police and Crime Commissioner scraped the Business Partnering for Police Programme, which the chief constable Chris Sims had formed as a tendering system to get private companies to possibly take over areas of police activities.
Both Price and Police and Crime Commissioner Bob Jones describe the programme as unclear in the objectives.
“We ended up telling people what it’s not rather than what it was. It was very wide, so patrols would not be outsourced, but support for a patrol could be, but that got misunderstood.
“A technology taskforce looked at how we innovate and integrate, and we are down to select one of three, which will allow access to commercial technology that we could use in the police,” he says of a benefit from the defunct programme.
On the beat
Price and West Midlands Police have already begun the adoption of consumer technologies into the force and sees potential for more, but is not considering ‘bring your own device’ like some parts of the public sector. “We may move to a model like BYOD, they already use their own cars, but with only access to certain applications. Social is a much more powerful way of dealing with the public and to make them aware. The amount of information that criminals put on Facebook too, one boasted on Facebook of a crime and we caught him within 24 hours.” Price describes social media as an extension of the sphere that the police have to patrol. “Communities are not necessarily places you go to, they can be wider. A crime can begin overseas and happen in Dudley.”
There are challenges to tooling up the police with the latest technology, he concedes. “You don’t want the police huddled over a tablet and not in a bubble; you want your officers to interact with the communities.”
“I have an enthusiastic IT team,” Price says of the changes that have already driven through as part of a major modernisation of West Midlands Police. “We are using server based technology at present to deliver information on various form factors, it is a genteel start. We have invested in Microsoft. Microsoft has a dominant footprint, but Android is becoming a personal de facto,” he says of ensuring information is device agnostic. “We are currently rolling out Windows 7 as our core system to replace XP and using Windows 7 as a way of introducing new ways of working such as open plan hot desk policies in the headquarters.
Price sits on the Information Management Business Area of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and this is helping him and his peers drive standards and efficiencies.
“Rather than three or four forces doing different things there is greater sharing, for example Hampshire and Thames Valley are doing some development work with Windows that we will all share.” He says further rationalisation is possible across the force and being considered.
Prior to joining West Midlands Police Price was head of ICT for the Highways Agency, his first public sector role, but he describes the culture of West Midlands Police being very different and “one of the delights of the job”.
CV: Chris Price
March 2011 – Feb 2014:CIO, West Midlands Police
May 2006 – March 2011: Head of ICT, Highways Agency
March 2006 – May 2006: strategic consultancy assignment, npower
June 2005 – February 2006: Head of development (Interim), Davis Langdon
May 2004 – April 2005: head of ICT, Siemens Energy
June 2001 – January 2004: Head of ICT, TNT Express
June 2000 – June 2001: CIO, Keane
February 1997 – May 2000: senior project manager, TNT Logistics
January 1994 – May 1997: project manager, Nat West
May 1992 – February 1994: ICT consultant/business analyst, HSBC
June 1986 – May 1992: senior systems engineer, Lucas Engineering & Systems