by Mark Chillingworth

Surrey Police CIO interview – Sharing the beat

Aug 06, 2015
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In the weeks following our meeting with Ben Rowntree, then CIO of both Surrey and Sussex County Police forces, the Institute of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) Professor Will Stewart said policing had a “critical need to update” its contact services. In particular, he said that policing needed to consider using apps and text as a result of the prevalence of smartphones in today’s society. The IET and transformational policing CIOs are reacting to what in the business world is now commonly called the channel shift.

I met CIO Ben Rowntree at Surrey police’s headquarters nestled in among the oak trees on the outskirts of Guildford just before the CIO left the Surrey and Sussex police forces. “You’d think that as they are both rural Home Counties communities, the policing would be easy,” he says in his Surrey office. “But we’ve had the Magna Carta celebration, the Epsom Derby every year, there are fracking protests, we have raves, Pride in Brighton and the political party conferences. The core statistics are not the full picture as they cover conventional crime figures for offences like burglary,” Rowntree says of the low crime statistics for the UK’s two most wooded counties, but there are challenges, too.

“The policing challenge now is cybercrime, domestic violence and child sexual exploitation. So it is about looking beneath the leafy exterior. Gatwick is a huge opportunity for people to fly out to Turkey and then on to Syria, so the police operation there is quite hectic and we have a coast line, so it is a dynamic beat,” he says.

The police forces of Surrey and Sussex have been at the forefront of greater collaboration between the UK’s 45 police forces. “These are two police forces that are increasingly working together in this era of aggressive collaboration. The two forces have spent a time collaborating on vehicle fleets, procurement and now that is also happening on the support services such as finance, HR and IT, as these are the enablers,” Rowntree explains.

The CIO has two IT teams, one in each county and he has spent the past year turning that into a single IT operation. “With a merger, you just have to get on with it. People have a vested interest in policing in their community and we are asking them to lose something of that identity, so it is a different change programme.”

And Rowntree understands the culture change will affect him, too. “I can see that I need to be out of a job. I spend over £30 million a year on IT. Times that by 43 and you get an idea of the scale of opportunity,” he explains of the 43 police forces across England and Wales.

“They are keen to do things that make policing better, so it is about getting the infrastructure right that keeps our cops safe,” he says of the leadership team he is working with.

Policing is a reactive business. We are trying to make it more proactive, as we have to do more with less or at best the same number of people,” the CIO says of life under austerity. One of the challenges for the police forces of the UK is the cultural belief that the police is the organisation that will solve all issues, as Rowntree says, come Friday at 5pm it is the response service.

“Should we collect a horse that has got loose on the motorway, or is an animal charity the most qualified to respond?” Rowntree is among a crack force of transformational CIOs that see their organisation becoming an orchestrator rather than administrator of the outcome. For public sector organisations and those that they serve a challenge of austerity is not only the depleting funds from central government, but also changing the perception of what or how public services are delivered, whether it is council services or rounding up bolted horses.

“We have online reporting tools, but do people really trust them to report a crime?” Rowntree analyses the channel shift the IET are calling for. “The journey of interacting with policing has to be more like making an online holiday booking, so that we can get people away from relying solely upon ringing up all of the time,” but as the CIO points out, the public sector – understandably – has a conservative approach to channel shift.

“You can see the front page of the Daily Mail if a violent crime is reported online, but it takes the police a week to respond. So it is about how we channel shift,” he says of the tabloid lens he and his peers live under. Following our interview, Police Scotland was launching an investigation into a communications failure in its traditional call centre operations, following the deaths of two in a car on a busy Scottish road.

Channel shift means the physical infrastructure of policing is also a legacy of old ways. In the Surrey town I live in, the Victorian police station was recently demolished to make way for housing, with our local bobbies operating from under-utilised council offices in town.

“The decrease in police stations shouldn’t dent community’s confidence. The transition away from face-to-face to more use of the phone and digital services is happening, so some police stations will become hubs.”

Modern role of the police

On digital, Rowntree, like Richard Thwaite when he was CIO of London’s Met police, is preparing for greater use of digital evidence captured by citizens, which is increasing. Motoring retailer Halfords is pushing dashcam devices in its latest marketing. One of Rowntree’s forces has used helmet camera evidence from cyclists and motorcycle riders, who have been put at great danger by car drivers.

“Why wouldn’t you want to download your helmet camera evidence on to a secure police website? Also in Sussex our officers are already using body cameras as there is a lot of trust in these,” the CIO explains. Across the pond, the lack of body cameras in use by the police was cited as a reason why there has been a breakdown in relations between African-American citizens and the police.

“A lot of forces are looking at what the Met is doing,” Rowntree says of the London force that has been making a major investment in body cameras and the use of the iPad on the beat. He has already deployed a mobile strategy into his two forces.

“The smartphone is nearly 10 years old, and only now are the police officers are getting it. We don’t need to be 10 years behind. That is the problem with the past 10 to 15 years, we have been left behind and our technology platform is built on sand.” Rowntree has deployed Samsung Note phablets to officers for its usable size.

Modern officers

Over the past 12 months, Rowntree has not only brought two IT forces together, but sharpened its technology assets.

“Before we get a greater level of collaboration, you need common systems. A lot of forces have not done that, but if you don’t as a force you cannot do the other changes. At the moment, police officers report into 18 different systems. It should be one system and we should be enabling officer to be better at policing, making it smoother is one of my priorities. What we are finding is that the mobile is saving a lot of effort as the officers that have them mean they have to call the contact centre less.

“We have invested in IT to make a difference for officers, making them mobile,” he reveals. The CIO has also been busy preparing to upgrade the back office infrastructure. He inherited Microsoft NT and XP technology, which he will move on to the latest Microsoft Windows platform. He has also been busy ensuring both police forces have a shared enterprise agreement with their vendors. The challenge is bringing together two separate ERP platforms, SAP and Oracle.

Rowntree describes the recent upgrade of the Public Service Network for Police as important. “It’s not such a jump, with the police there was already a network and this upgrade has taken it to another level in terms of security and ensuring it us up to date,” he says of the continued investment in a separate network instead of using an existing commercial network.

Just as in the commercial world, so too in policing, Rowntree took the joint forces role with the assurance that he’d be at the equivalent to the board.

“When I came here, it was important that it was a chief officer role on the board in both organisations. It is important that the position is on the board so that IT is an assurance role and thinking of the digital strategy and it feels like an innovation role.

Rowntree joined from rail and transport services firm First Group. As one of the leaders of change at two police forces, he’s a strong witness for how the public sector is coping with change. “Policing is still struggling with the austerity. It is a big culture shift,” he explains. “This is a tough task of change. The public sector mentality is for very strong governance, which can create bureaucracy and making decisions can be slow and that makes change and innovation hard. My job is to blend the two together. We don’t want people saying no, but we don’t want people to push hard at the wrong things.”

Rowntree has good reason to care as deeply as the officers on the beat about the regions he polices. He’s a Surrey resident with two young sons, and is one of the increasingly rare CIOs that plays golf, though he tries to spend what spare time he has with his family.