Andrew Watson’s introduction to the world of IT was far from orthodox. “I came back to the office after a contract finished and was hanging around the office, when I noticed a set of boxes in the corner,” he says. “It was a bunch of these new PC things and a lot of co-ax cable and what have you. We had no IT guy as such so I took on the job – and built the office network out of that set of boxes. Before long I was the IT guy.”

And today Watson – a civil engineer by trade and original training – is in charge of IT at the British Transport Police (BTP), where in today’s highly security-conscious environment, technology is key. “I was never much of a structural guy but I did a lot of geology and earthworks stuff, as well as nuclear submarine bases and motorways,” he told CIO. “But I got all sorts of assignments, including assessing ecological impact.”

The point is that Watson did, and still does, apply a set of core intellectual skills to whatever task he is given. “What being an engineer taught me is to agree what you are going produce, then have a plan of how you are going to deliver it – and stick to both. If you take that approach, you really can’t be fazed by anything.”

It’s also an attitude he is encouraging in his troops. “I have a lot of time for the public sector standard project management method (Prince) – but there are no Prince-trained people in my department,” he says, with something of a twinkle in his eye. “What I try and encourage is basic project management, full stop – plan what you are going to do, do what you have planned, keep checking that by doing what you are doing you will deliver your plan and if you are not, act. But act by changing your plan. That’s about working to a specification, doing progress analysis, quality assessment, and so forth. That way a project – of no matter what scale – is just another project.”

Watson’s management learning isn’t that he’s a genius, but that if properly enabled with the right engineering approach anyone can decompose a problem and achieve an acceptable solution. It’s an approach he has successfully passed on to his team. “When I first joined there was something of a ‘Millwall attitude’,” he jokes. “As in, no one likes us, but we don’t care. But that had to change. The attitude we aimed for, and have now achieved, is that we are a respected and essential part of the team that helps to police the railways.”

Watson used a range of tools, personal and organisational, to effect the turnaround. “IT infrastructure library (see How ITIL is helping the BTP) was fundamental. But it is only a process, a vision is something that is personal and people can believe in. Say you’re in a shipyard, you can work with a bunch of joiners and metalworkers to just build a boat, or you can share a vision to build a beautiful ship and share the experience of sailing the sea in it.”

Morale rebuilding was, again, just a part of the project. “Technology staff get blamed for not dealing with what they don’t know about. Well, no-one picks on my people,” he says, with a certain amount of indignation.

“One of the great things about implementing ITIL was we managed to get across to the rest of the organisation the idea of incident management for technology issues. An incident doesn’t get worked on now unless it has a number, issued by the service desk. By having a complete process around issuing that number – logging to a template to ensure we capture all the data we need and ensuring that the user is clear on the probable resolution time. So I don’t get harangued for not solving a three-day problem in one day anymore.”

Apart from leading the change programme, Watson has replaced some 2,000 desktops across all sites, a move accompanied by a relocation to the Camden HQ and an upgrade of the network. He has also reorganised the department from top to bottom – twice – and inaugurated a new skills competence network to aid staff in terms of gaps and training programmes. Has BTP’s technology function crossed the finish line, then?

Watson points to solid achievements as proof of progress, certainly – the penetration of mobile (GPRS and PDA) technology in the force, which has helped cut down the amount of time his uniformed officers spend doing paperwork. Mobile technology has helped give back 51 minutes in every officer’s eight-hour shift to being visible and reassuring to the travelling public. But he isn’t satisfied.

“We have a successful blend of robust back-end technology and an enshrined service management culture; a project delivery process that rarely misses; a governance policy that constantly challenges our performance and solid risk management in place, yes. But you know what? The bit that the business never understands is that the technology was the easy bit.”

It’s an overused term, but the core of what Watson has tried to do at BTP is empowerment. “In addition to a disaster recovery and business continuity plan we have a major incident plan and all relevant staff have copies of it off site. It is designed to help us support the force when a major police incident occurs regardless of the timing or who is available. If something happens and I am not available and the next guy isn’t, well, the guy who takes the call is gold commander until the agreed handover. And that’s fine – because he has the plan. All he has to do is work with it.”

How ITIL is helping the BTP

The British Transport Police is moving towards a complete implementation of service management using ITIL. What is striking about this move is the mapping between ITIL structures and the principles of the UK police national intelligence model (NIM). BTP’s leadership has found a way to apply ITIL problem profi ling directly on to business structures as a way to clearly identify solutions. This approach uses assessment processes to direct the tasking of staff, combined with robust – and non-Prince – project management approaches.

Andrew Watson, 40, has been chief information officer of the British Transport Police since September 2004. His previous roles have mainly been senior IT appointments in engineering companies, starting with IT manager at civil engineering firm Halcrow in 1993, and MIS manager at another engineering outfit, Optek Sensor Group.

He started his career as a project manager in a civil engineering context in 1988. His first hands-on introduction to IT was setting up his then employer’s first (Novell) network – from scratch. Watson has a BSc in engineering and was formerly a chartered civil engineer, but has concentrated on gaining skills and qualifications in service management (ITIL) and financial accounting. In his current role Watson manages an IT budget of £10.5m and an IT staff complement of 50, reporting to the organisation’s deputy chief constable (effectively, the organisation’s managing director).