The Mayor of London's cross-party budget and performance committee recently examined the Metropolitan Police's approach to technology, comparing it with other UK police forces and similar activity abroad. The committee, chaired by Labour's London Assembly member John Biggs, is there specifically to scrutinise the budgets of the mayor, Boris Johnson, and hold him to account for Greater London Authority spending, which of course includes policing.
The resulting report, Smart policing: How the Metropolitan Police Service can make better use of technology, is a tough read, suggesting that failures in ICT provision have directly resulted in a less effective police force for London.
The committee accuses the Met Police of failing to introduce new technology that would improve policing productivity, and of sticking with a procurement policy that maintains far too much out-of-date technology through long-term contracts with a few big suppliers.
The numbers revealed in the report tell a damning story. “Faced with a 20 per cent cut in overall spending in the next three years, the Met can no longer afford to spend 85 per cent of its ICT budget on maintaining out-of-date, ineffective and overly expensive technology, some of which dates back to the 1970s,” it says. “The force has a total of 750 separate systems, 70 per cent are already redundant, rising to 90 per cent by 2015.”
It concludes with some specific recommendations from the committee and a timeframe that starts in November with a first update on progress by the Met.
It's not clear who the report is having a pop at, but it's certainly not pulling any punches. “The force has not had a coherent ICT strategy for years and senior leadership in this area has been lacking,” it says.
A previous Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) report also suggested that senior Met management had not taken ownership of the technology function, putting anyone who had to release a technology strategy in an almost impossible position.
Previous CIO Ailsa Beaton (pictured) left the post towards the end of last year and the Met altogether early in 2013. Her CIO role is currently filled by Richard Thwaite, a relative newcomer (he joined in February), as interim director of information.
Thwaite has rock-solid IT experience at Ford and UBS and is probably still busy acquainting himself with those 750 separate systems. The whole function is overseen by Met assistant commissioner Mark Rowley. The Met's revised ICT strategy is said to be on its way, though it has already been delayed a couple of times.
The other notable thing is that alongside a couple of pretty insignificant suggestions for new technologies (one of which is the mobile technology already recognised as critical and being rolled out), there is much talk, as might reasonably be expected from a budgetary watchdog, about how much all this change will cost. The Met’s information department budget is currently around £200m, and it has been told to cut this by a further £60m over the next three years. No suggestions have been proffered on how it should do this.
From a distance it looks like a classic public sector rat's tail, where a vast number of stakeholders struggle to gain dominance and have their say. There's certainly a Boris busload of interested parties aboard, including the Met and its department of information, MOPAC, the budget and performance committee of the mayor's office, and many, many more. The report contains at least 14 named groups, organisations and committees that have either had input or would be affected by the actions of any new CIO.
MOPAC, the report says, is recruiting for a new CIO. Any CIO considering this job might be put off, not by the requirement to employ more innovative technologies or to rationalise a huge raft of old technologies and contracts, but perhaps by having to do both these things while under scrutiny from all sides and simultaneously seeking 30 per cent cost reductions.
So this report, though full of useful hints and guidance, feels like so much more noise in an already deafening environment back at the Met's information department. It may even be that the steps already taken to create a leaner model of delivery, to focus on important technologies and to move away from the over-reliance on huge suppliers are the right ones.
If so, the report risks undermining the work already done, introducing too many watchdogs and stakeholders and creating a CIO role that is just so unattractive that only a profoundly brilliant or demonstrably foolhardy candidate would consider it a career move worth risking.
The Met (and the Londoners it polices) will be hoping for the former.