While business funding for cybercrime is one of the more interesting ideas to be floated this week, the police ICT industry should address other private sector partnership models

#cutshaveconsequences. One such is frenzied police lobbying, press interviews and tweeting in the run-up to the big decisions next month on police funding. We’d caution police ICT insiders against following too many cues from the current tone of debate. The notes being struck by some PCCs and senior officers recently are as sombre or shrill as those that come from the police federations. Once the dust has settled, though, the upper echelons will see public reassurance as more valuable than the current need to sway Osborne and May. Media covering policing in Britain will be thrown less red meat and become calmer as a result.

And that can only be a good thing. It’s unedifying that some forces are using models of the presumed police funding changes to point to “winners” as well as “losers” among forces; this hardly promotes a collaborative spirit and, in truth, nobody wins. It’s exasperating for those who seek to modernise the service that complex and interrelated questions about neighbourhood and community policing, visibility and patrols are reduced to headlines about “bobbies on the beat”. But the police technology community can gain valuable insights from the current tendency to flaunt worst case scenarios. Some of the kites being flown could well take off.

So what should the digital policing community make of Met Deputy Commissioner Craig Mackey’s suggestion on Newsnight that businesses and industry should be asked to pay for investigations into cybercrime, including direct funding for specific programmes? We’re not yet totally convinced that workforce planning and compulsory severance will mean radical change to HR platforms. It’s much more of a stretch to envisage that police forces will end up marketing their cyber services directly and need new ERP modules as a result. Few public services are less well suited than the police to an entrepreneurial, customer-centric approach.

Police cost recovery is largely aligned to sports and entertainment events which impose a policing burden and require a safety certificate to take place. “Marketing” of these police services can be rather adversarial. The commercial dynamics are set by court cases such as those against Reading Festivals and Wigan AFC. NPCC sets appropriate charges for non-events services such as granting firearms certificates and providing copies of police information; it’s a tariff which doesn’t suggest that commercial innovation is encouraged. While there’s a facility to cross-charge other government departments like Border Force or the prison service for policing services, or for the costs of mutual aid to be reclaimed from other forces, police forces don’t charge mental health trusts or children’s services departments for the time they spend engaging out of hours with those services’ clients. And despite the significant grumblings about police work as the social service of last resort, cost recovery models aren’t often mooted.

Anyway, police forces are already outcompeted by the private sector for investigatory services to businesses. Firms which have suffered cyber breaches or internal fraud will often prefer to buy in investigations which are more easily directed by the management, and where wrongdoers can be removed from the business without publicity. If Mackey’s suggestion means anything, it would be that some sort of hypothecated tax, or charged authorisation, for doing business online – an equivalent, really, of safety certification – would generate a new police funding stream. This would be charging for the statistical risk posed by a commercial activity, rather than charging for police services, and thus would be a more natural model for the police to adopt. In the (perhaps unlikely) event that UKTI, CBI and other stakeholders loved such an idea, then there would be a ready-made platform for sharing out the proceeds in the shape of the National Fraud Investigation Bureau’s flexible new solution for triaging frauds and assigning them to forces. There’d be no reason for the police IT sector to have a role in collecting the funds.

We’d suggest that musings about marketisation of policing and the impact on IT should go in a different direction. Without Mackey’s proposed funding, the police will continue to lose ground to the private sector in commercial fraud and cybercrime investigations. But that’s not the only space in which demand-led commercialisation will happen by stealth. Richer communities increasingly pay for private patrols. Less effective in most regards, they are as visible as police and score higher on the nebulous reassurance factor. Events faced with high policing bills turn to lookalike stewarding firms, frequently staffed by former or current uniformed services personnel. Innovation often involves private sector services as well as vendors: take Cheshire Constabulary and Northumbria Police, both trialling voluntary GPS monitoring in cases of potential domestic abuse. It’s a clever solution, which if mandated could be transformative in addressing violence against women, but it requires private monitoring services to escalate proximity alerts to the command hub. This makes it much less easy for data relating to unescalated issues to be taken into account for risk assessments; the issue applies similarly to innovation in lone worker protection and the estates guarding industry.

All of this means that services which look a lot like policing, or which generate important data, will increasingly be carried out by private sector firms, rather as the NHS is supplemented with a buoyant private health and wellness industry. And just as healthcare informatics has to take account of a mixed economy, those who set the long-term direction of police IT have to assume that officers will increasingly collaborate with private concerns. This matters. One of the biggest debates in our community is the extent to which police information platforms can be centralised and controlled. The financial, operational and innovation benefits of mandating a single CCCI platform across all forces are clear. And yet it’s equally clear that if PCCs and localism are to do their job, forces need to make their own choices on information architecture. But once we accept that the private sector will increasingly be a player, and that forces will need to absorb information from their commercial counterparts at scale and digitally, the conclusion has to be that we will need open and transparent information standards. And that conclusion holds whether or not the police CCCI market homogenises.

What does this means in practice for groups such as the Minerva consortium (which seems to be speaking for more than just Niche users on taxonomy and nomenclature issues) and Mike Barton’s Operational Requirements Board? The College of Policing has driven a quiet revolution in transparency: most aspects of police practice are now public. The issues will centre on platforms for collaboration, security standards and questions of governance and ownership for data which is admitted into police systems. It’s tough enough to get these last points right when considering inter-force collaboration, so it will be no easy task to build an information architecture which enables public–private partnerships. The upside is that espousing these principles would surely endear a project or team to the Home Secretary, and to PCCs of her political persuasion.

One of the assumptions taking hold for us, as we consider maturity markers for digital intelligence and investigation, is that openness of the relevant assets should feature in the scoring. Quite how highly they score will depend on how police leaders react to this viewpoint. Qualitative interviews for the Digital Policing Review will begin shortly, but if you would like to discuss this or any other associated issues, please do get in touch. And do share this article if you think that colleagues in policing would have a view on it.