Taking down the barriers

15 May 2013

Ian Blackhurst is Executive Director at Northgate Public Services

I was really pleased to be asked recently to write an article for the NPIA series of 100 police blogs (#100blog).  There is so much happening in policing right now that being able to capture views from across the police family should provide an interesting perspective on the wider issues.

One of the key issues of course is how we can better support frontline officers by giving them better quality information. In my job I’ve seen the blood, sweat and tears that can sometimes be involved in joining-up police systems, but also the opportunities to improve things and the tremendous benefits that can be gained. Below is the article that I submitted.

When someone described the IT systems used by the UK’s police forces as ‘confused, fragmented and expensive’ they weren’t kidding. Few people would argue with the notion that in order for officers to support the public and tackle crime as effectively as possible, more joined-up information both across and within forces is urgently needed.

We've all seen the films. The senior police officer, usually American, shouts across the briefing room that he ‘wants to see everything we know about this guy in the next 60 seconds’.  When I speak to people outside of policing and tell them it doesn’t really work like this, most are surprised.

Thankfully, I’ve seen first-hand that things are starting to change. Programmes such as the Police National Database, the Home Office Data Hub, Visor, Firearms, PentiP, CJ Know-How and most recently Athena, are about connecting information and making it work effectively for the people who use it. I hope the push from the centre continues and that support continues locally as the PCCs come on board.

Athena, which will be available this year as a live police cloud service, will allow forces using the service to have a single store of information covering four key areas:  intelligence, investigation, managing offenders and preparing files for court. As well as a single file of information Athena will allow forces to significantly streamline the way they record and use data. Officers will have instant access to all the information available about a potential suspect or victim – allowing them to make better informed and speedier decisions.

Perhaps ironically, better connected systems are actually cheaper. By replacing separate systems within and across forces with a single system, managed centrally, Athena forces will be able to maintain investment in frontline policing by reducing spending in other areas, and in particular on IT. The consistency the system provides will form a basis for further collaboration between forces in the future, which is how most forces are looking to deliver the huge cost savings required of them over the coming years.

There are challenges for sure – but very few of them are about the technology. My view is that joining systems needs to be driven from the top. Without the drive to make things happen the confusion and fragmentation that can affect police officers' ability to do their job to the highest standard will persist, and the savings that need to be made by the police service will be forced into the wrong areas.