The digital transformation of policing roundtable: How technology investment is creating a new everyday for UK police
Martin McFadyen, Head of Public Sector, Virgin Media Business
Historically, police forces have been up against it when it comes to digital technology.
While organised crime networks sometimes have millions of pounds to throw at technology, the same cannot be said for the police service.
But the pandemic forced the sector to innovate at pace and at scale. And many were more than up to the challenge.
Our recent study with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) found that Covid-19 might have accelerated the rate of digital transformation in the justice sector by over five years.
The research also shows that if we continue to invest in digital technology, we could add £236 billion to UK GDP by 2040 - the benefits of which could be felt across not only the policing frontline, but also within our communities.
To understand more about how Covid-19 had affected digital transformation in policing, we partnered with Policing Insight to host a virtual roundtable discussion.
The roundtable reflected on what had worked and what could have been done better during the pandemic, as well as looking at how technology could help overcome challenges in the future.
I was honoured to be a part of the discussion and to hear how some of the most senior digital leaders from a range of organisations, including Police and Crime Commissioners, members of the National Federation and serving police officers, had responded to the effects of the pandemic and beyond.
Expertly chaired by Bernard Rix, Publisher of Policing Insight, the panel featured 11 representatives from across police forces and the Cabinet Office.
Here’s what I learned and took away from our discussion.
A more equal level of digital capability, regardless of location
Attendees highlighted the need for a fair, minimum standard of technology and equipment across all 43 UK police forces, regardless of the postcode they’re based in. Currently, there are varying levels of digital capability across the UK, which can often present challenges.
Belinda Goodwin, National Wellbeing Lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) said, “(Frontline police) want the technology that will support them to do their job and do their job well and go out and protect the public. But what we're seeing on the frontline – with policing under pressure - is that it is a postcode lottery. There are 43 different ways of (doing something) or there are different systems that forces will use for putting a crime report on for instance.”
Simon Kempton, PFEW ICT Lead, praised the flexibility of police in the face of these existing inequalities. He also highlighted the importance of reflecting on lessons from the pandemic as the sector moves forward - for example, recognising how Covid-19 had exposed the need for police forces to work together seamlessly and at lightning speed.
Steve Turner, Cleveland Police and Crime Commissioner, expressed surprise and concern at the disparity across forces and warned of the risks that come with it, especially when it comes to tackling organised crime.
“I talked to some of my colleagues who take IT for granted. It’s out of this world what other forces have. One of the scariest things I've heard in my time here is the criminals we're trying to catch are far more IT savvy than the officers that are trying to catch them. That's a worrying thing and I think it's something we need to be ahead of.”
However, Ian Bell, Chief Executive of the Police Digital Service (PDS), pointed to reasons for optimism. He mentioned that while the pandemic exposed technological disparities across police forces, it also created a sense of momentum and interoperability between service systems, something that’s likely to bode well for the future.
“We've been talking about the development of national standards forever - probably all the way back to 2015, depressingly. Over the last year to 18 months, we've seen significant progress around the development and delivery of standards through our organisation, out into wider government and the supply chain.
“That's really beginning to push the challenge around how we generate interoperability between our systems, our services and our solutions. And I think that's something that we've got real momentum around and that we'll continue to progress.”
Standardisation and interoperability are essential elements of improving outcomes in policing. The rapid sharing of information between forces will help police services solve or prevent crimes much more effectively, which means better results for organisations and citizens alike.
Hybrid working and policing
Another key focus was remote working. In the words of Simon Kempton, “It was always accepted that if you were a police officer, you could not work from home.” That was a point echoed by Belinda Goodwin, who pointed out that for police officers, working from home “was kind of a dirty word” prior to the pandemic.
Of course, it’s not always possible in policing. Fighting crime still requires a physical presence on the streets. However, according to Simon, “the pandemic showed us there are some roles where that is achievable.”
Belinda also highlighted that, as a Federation, the ability to operate remotely had enabled them to carry on working as an organisation. She called for more action to ensure that technology is properly supporting police officers at home.
And some participants were quick to point out remote working’s successes in terms of improving engagement and team collaboration.
Ian Bell, Chief Executive of the Police Digital Service (PDS), called it a “very different position”. “Let's use the Met as a really good example. 55,000 users on Teams over a very short period. Seeing that set the tone for the rest of the user base (and) really to begin to push the nature of these tools (drove) a terrific response.”
While there will always be a need for police forces on the street to tackle crime and reassure the public, the panel agreed that Covid-19 had shown that there is a role for remote working to play. If it’s implemented in the right way, this could benefit staff productivity and team collaboration.
Equipping police services with confidence
The conversation also covered the importance of creating the right conditions under which people have the tools and confidence to use digital technology.
For Paul Court, Merseyside Police’s Head of Digital Transformation, the key to using technology effectively in a policing context lies in user confidence and giving people the ability to lead digital transformation programmes in the right way, bringing others along on the journey.
“I think that (this) is a piece of work that still needs developing both at the fundamental level with advanced or specialised skills and then at a leadership level as well. When I talk about leadership, I'm not necessarily talking about how to use the tech, but actually how to lead digital transformation programmes. That’s going to become key.”
Simon Kempton reiterated this point, stating that innovation cannot be a “top-down” process and that adopting an overly hierarchical approach would lead to letting the public down.
Desmond Oliver, from the Cabinet Office’s Markets and Suppliers team, then moved the conversation on to providing a unified experience for all, particularly when it comes to hybrid working for staff across agencies.
“This produces challenges to make sure everybody has the same experiences. If you’re video conferencing, how do you make sure those connecting remotely have the same experience as those in the room?”
Desmond also emphasised the importance of collaboration between the public and private sector in overcoming these obstacles and guaranteeing a first-class technological experience. “I’m confident (that) with lots of very supportive partners, we will find solutions to these challenges.”
Getting the technology right was also mentioned as a priority for Steve Hartshorn, a National Board member at the Police Federation, who talked about the need for practical, easy-to-use equipment. “If a control room can send (information) out to someone on the beat, can they view it easily? Some of the information we’re sent is minuscule. It’s too small to be useful when you need to look at it quickly and professionally to make a decision that could potentially land you in court.”
It was clear that building confidence and trust is partly about ensuring that underlying systems and user-facing technology is practical and easy to engage with.
What next for UK policing?
Stephen Mold, Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Northamptonshire, captured the need for action well: “One of the things we've really got to be doing - we've all got to coalesce our capability, share and dilute some of our sovereignty and work together (and work) for the greater good. Ultimately, that's what we're here to do.”
All the participants were eager to push on with digital transformation, equipping officers with the right tools and the right skills to have the confidence to use them effectively.
The future is not without challenges. The ever-changing nature of crime means that police constantly need to innovate to keep pace with well-funded criminal networks.
And this challenge can only be met with investment in connectivity, collaboration, and network technologies to streamline processes and improve outcomes for citizens.
To find out more about the impact of digital transformation within the police & justice sector, read our report here.
Thanks to all those who took part in our roundtable:
- Chair: Bernard Rix, Publisher of Policing Insight
- Jo Farrell, Chief Constable, Durham Constabulary
- Paul Court, Head of Digital Transformation, Merseyside Police
- Belinda Goodwin, National Wellbeing Lead, Police Federation
- Steve Turner, Police and Crime Commissioner, Cleveland
- Simon Kempton, National Board, Police Federation
- Russell Tilsed, Senior Director – Public Sector, 8x8
- Desmond Oliver, Commercial Function, Markets and Suppliers, Cabinet Office
- Chris Perry, COO ICT, Police Scotland
- Ian Bell, Chief Executive, Police Digital Service
- Steve Hartshorn, National Board, Police Federation
- Stephen Mold, Police and Crime Commissioner, Northamptonshire