You Can’t Make a Silk Purse…

I walked into the custody suite in 1991. Stood at the desk was my first prisoner as a full-time officer. I relayed the circumstances of the arrest to the Custody Sgt. I was confident everything was as it should be. He paused, whilst he considered my arrest then looked to his clerk (a PC) and said “Sounds like an unlawful arrest”. I was mortified. What had I done wrong. The Custody Sgt then grinned at me, objective achieved, and went on to book in my lawful prisoner.

Custody was an archaic Victorian place. You won’t believe what the breathalyser machine was like. It looked like something created by Caractacus Potts and made all sorts of odd whizz, pop, bang and gurgling noises. Computers were not something the police had. Paper custody records, paper crime reports… paper everything. The only indication that the police had some sort of technology going on was a workstation behind the custody desk that sported two computer screens and two keyboards. One was the local CRO (Criminal Records Office) machine and the other was the PNC (Police National Computer). Both systems utilised a monitor that displayed luminous green text on a black screen. Even then they looked dated.

Since then the system has had numerous updates. The PNC2 (Phoenix) program was advertised and promoted as the way forward, an exciting new era for the police. It went live in May 1995 and it is true that there were many changes, but these were mostly back office functions revolving around the transfer of responsibility for managing nominal records from the NIB (National Identification Bureau) to local forces. We moved from NIB and microfiche records to forces updating offence details, MO and descriptive details directly onto the PNC. This engendered more timely updates to the system but operationally it had no impact on my day-to-day police work.

It was essentially a very cumbersome and simplistic system. Since then we have seen improvements that have allowed for more detailed searches that are of value in identifying vehicles and people in a variety of ways. It continues to grow with the addition of bolt on databases such as vehicle insurance details and others.

In 2004 Sir Michael Bichard submitted his report to the Home Secretary with regard to the horrific offences committed by Ian Huntley and the lessons learnt as a result. There were a number of areas that were subject to his recommendations for action. One of the most serious shortfalls identified was that of data quality and the sharing of information between forces. His first recommendation states;

A national IT system for England and Wales to support police intelligence should be introduced as a matter of urgency. The Home Office should take the lead and report by December 2004 with clear targets for implementation

Today is November 16th 2011. The PND (Police National Database) is imminent and is the outcome of this cross force information sharing system. Maybe I’m missing something but over 7 years doesn’t strike me as a satisfactory response to something that was deemed to be “urgent”. Yes, there have been some problems and PITO (Police Information Technology Organisation), responsible for IT across the 43 forces of England and Wales was disbanded in 2007 after being criticised by the Home Secretary as being ineffective. Oddly they handed responsibility to what has turned out to be another largely ineffective organisation the NPIA. The PND will no doubt have great benefits to policing but we have to accept this is a new system. It will have teething problems and issues and it’s going to be some considerable time before forces around the country get it right anything close to most of the time.

One of the other areas of business police now deal with as a result of Bichard is MOPI (Management of Police Information). The byline for this is “Getting it right, first time, every time”. It essentially means that police forces around the country have to ensure that data held on local and national systems is accurate. Errors, omissions and “filling in of the blanks” just simply wont do and can lead to terrible consequences. Yet whilst forces have adopted this and improved data quality there are still issues and problems with data quality and accuracy because every one of the 43 forces operates in slightly different ways. Even today I have pointed out to IT administrators that the system they have in relation to one area of business is actually littering records with inaccurate information only because there is an issue further back along the line in relation to unique reference numbers that they have failed to deal with appropriately at a local and national level.

So where are we? Well we have the PNC as a national system and we have the imminent PND too. We then have 43 forces around the country that use different systems for intelligence, custody, crime recording, incident handling and a whole host of other business areas. There are a number of systems that some forces use but by no means all of them. They use different computers, different operating systems and different software packages for every business area.

A little while ago there was a suggestion from Govt that the number of forces in the country could be reduced and thereby increase efficiency, make savings and improve performance. It was completely mishandled, attracted the disdain it deserved and the Govt ‘U’ turned on the issue. That said a number of forces are now entering into “sharing” agreements with other forces and not necessarily those they are geographically contiguous with. The sharing is massively less than the earlier proposals by the Govt and the reason forces were against the more complete mergers is clear. Every force in the country does the same job but operates in a different way. They have gone in their own direction for so long that trying to pull all the individual strings back together is nigh on impossible.

This issue is self-perpetuating and will continue ad-infinitum until somebody hits the STOP button. Every force in the country is hemorrhaging money as it creates, develops or buys in IT systems to suit its needs. They then employ staff to update that info to make it compliant with PNC/PND so it will be accepted. How much money and how many staff hours are being wasted?

Would it make sense to you to review the whole system and put a requirement on forces that they all operate on the same systems? They all gather the same information, in the same format and can share it at the click of a button? Would it make sense that all forces bought the same packages and thereby saved money? Would it make sense that every force in the country bought the same uniform that only needed embellishment with the force name/crest? Would it make sense if an officer in Hampshire could talk to an officer in Newcastle and both be familiar with the systems they are talking about? Would it make sense if every force in the country bought the same vehicles and bought in bulk.. much greater bulk than now?

In a time of actually trying to reduce expenditure it goes without saying that such a drastic change to the way forces buy IT systems and services is going to cost money. This will not be attractive to many of those trying to squeeze our budgets even further but sometimes you have to invest to make long term savings.

I sound like I’m advocating a national police service. I’m not sure I’m there yet but the idea in principle does have some merit. The time of 43 forces in this small country doing the same job in 43 different ways and sourcing and procuring IT in 43 different ways has to end. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but as the police tiptoed gingerly into IT many years ago how wonderful would it be now if we had given it some real joined-up thinking then? How much further down the line would we be?

In the meantime we generally make do with systems that just don’t talk to one another and spend time fixing issues and correcting data so that they do. Our national systems have become a bit of a dog’s dinner and there are two phrases that spring to mind…. one relates to an inability to polish something rather disgusting and the one this post is entitled to…

“You can’t make a silk purse out of sow’s ear”

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2 thoughts on “You Can’t Make a Silk Purse…”

  1. Good post, as someone doing a lot of filing of bits of paper I am very much aware that even that seems to have different interpretations of ‘how to do it’ across one department. Is it crime report first and papers behind it in date order, so most recent at the furthest back? Or most recent first going back to the crime report? As to the logic behind why some crime reports are filed asap and others wait 3-4 months to hit the filing well I’m wondering if anyone knows a good reason for it still being down to pieces of paper rather than electronic documents but am too new at this particular game of silly beggars to pose the questions.

  2. The idea of all forces collaborating to buy in bulk everything from paperclips and pens to panda cars and PSU vans, thereby reaping the benefits of discounts and economies of scale is of course common sense, and it makes one wonder why the 43 forces haven’t done so before. Is it down to the vested interests of the HQ staff in the various forces who currently perform the procurement functions, the chief officers who don’t want to relinquish any part of their empires etc?

    However, in practice, I consider it likely that the Home Secretary will establish a new, national “Police Procurement” department overseen by the Home office, to drive forward these efficiency savings. They will of course need to work out how many paperclips, pens, pandas and PSU vans etc. are needed by each force, and how much each force should pay into its coffers depending on size, geography, (four wheel drives costing more than pandas for example), driving standards and accident rates. Then they will need to tender for the best deals, find somewhere to store the purchased items, instigate a system to consider forces’ requests for the items, and finally to deliver them. A whole new layer of beureaucracy to add to those existing, and all trumpeted loudly in the interests of efficiency savings.

    So young, so fresh-faced and yet so cynical…

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