With the growing prospect of the responsibility for large national IT programmes passing from the Home Office to policing, the way the service gets its technology looks set to change; Sharad Rathi, Operations Director and Public Sector lead at HCLTech, believes that how that technology is developed and delivered is at least as important as which public body is delivering it.
Every few years there comes a point when the people responsible for technology in policing in the UK decide it’s time for a rethink about how the needs of the service should be met.
This has seen new – and welcome – scientific capabilities within the National Police Chiefs’ Council, significant extra resources to the Police Digital Service (PDS), and now the increasingly likely prospect of the responsibility for large national programmes passing from the Home Office to policing.
Time will tell if these developments have the desired impact, but one thing seems to be agreed by all parties to the debate: the current situation is a long way short of where it needs to be, and it is front-line public servants who suffer most from those shortcomings.
At a recent industry consultation engagement, taking place as part of the refresh of the National Policing Digital Strategy, senior leaders from the PDS were openly critical of some of the main operational policing systems.
They made it very clear that they believe there is need for change to create a more vibrant and competitive market. They are 100% right to say so, but as the delivery landscape changes, it’s important to remember that it isn’t just where things happen that matters. The approach to delivery is crucial.
The tech adoption challenge in British policing
In the last 15 years, the tech available to British police forces has developed a reputation for poor user experience, and there have always been limited options available. Policing is a seriously and serially under-served market. One of the key reasons for this is that it feels to many companies like a relatively closed market, with few opportunities for new companies to enter – the main providers have a relative monopoly on the contracts.
This has obvious implications for product innovation, as there is little incentive to develop whole new systems for a market you aren’t confident will be receptive to a fresh approach.
All too often, policing ends up with outdated technology from suppliers who don’t treat the industry properly. The systems that are the most central to operational delivery are the ones that become hardest to change, as leaders are reluctant to implement major digital transformations.
The good news is that there are new technologies on the market, with new techniques that can enable comprehensive solutions to be built quickly and effectively in incremental stages, provided work is carried out in the smartest way.
This can help reshape the expectations of a police service that has learned by experience that transformation is exceptionally difficult.
The necessary precursors for success
A shift to ‘next generation’ provision will not be simple, but at least it offers the prospect of a future where stagnation isn’t inevitable. So what are the necessary precursors for success?
The first is a requirement for flexibility and adaptability. There needs to be a commitment from suppliers that they and their systems will adopt the highest emerging industry standards rather than persist with rigid outdated approaches. Secondly, there needs to be a rigorous and unflinching focus on the customer experience and on human-centric design.
Thirdly, suppliers need to prioritise easy ‘no noise’ transition to new systems. This is possible using the best development practices that have evolved in recent years, to achieve zero to minimal risk transition.
Policing should demand nothing less than these conditions being met; if other sectors can benefit from rapid delivery, seamless integration and high performance built in by design, why should the police accept anything less? After all, a large amount of policing depends on a handful of core systems, so it’s crucial that they become flexible vehicles which make data accessible. This hasn’t always been possible, but with auto-generating code and accelerated development toolkits, tech solutions can iterate quickly and be delivered at speed.
Techniques such as the ‘Strangler Fig’ pattern and ‘Situational Layer Cake’ are now available and in wide use across sectors. These not only smooth the transition, but also allow true, multi-tenant ‘Software as a Service’ solutions without compromising individual customers’ uniqueness. The way that solutions are built matters and there’s no reason not to insist on the best.
Fail fast to succeed
There’s one key difference between the status quo and making this desired state a reality, which is an incremental ‘fail-fast’ iterative development approach with proofs of concept and prototypes. Modern techniques and trusting partnership mean it’s no longer obligatory to buy an old system that hasn’t changed for years. Through our work with policing, we have learned that it’s possible to achieve dramatic results quickly if you are agile, if you listen to users, and if you are prepared to rework and amend functionality as you go.
Policing has a great opportunity and the prospect of big changes in the national institutional landscape reflect a new confidence to take that opportunity. But these changes alone are unlikely to achieve their desired impact if the police are still compelled to bend their practices to suit outdated systems that no longer meet operational requirements.
Changing the way that things are done alongside changes to the bodies where they happen will require a degree of bravery and foresight.
There will undoubtedly need to be an element of risk tolerance in the early days, and buy-in is required right from the top. But the benefits of more responsive, user-friendly, and interoperable systems have the potential to unlock the power of police data and shift the focus onto creating solutions for users, rather than pushing reluctant users to outdated solutions.