HMIC’s call for capability plans might not impact significantly on information systems unless the digital policing agenda is brought to the fore

There’s a lot for police ICT leaders and suppliers to chew on in this week’s HMIC PEEL reports on efficiency. PCCs and chief constables generally take the inspectorate’s judgements to heart, and the individual recommendations for improvement will be taken seriously, in many cases informing priorities for the IT function. Anyone taking a cross-sector view on transformation schemes should note two crucial points from the reports. The first is that HMIC wants forces to understand and develop officer skills. A constant refrain in the summary report is that constabularies have planned for capacity, not for capability: they have focused on the number of officers they will need at each rank rather than what they will need individuals to do.

The second is that it’s not enough, if it ever was, to tick the boxes of IT-enabled change strategies. Execution is all. Humberside Police is rated as inadequate for the simple reason that its ambitious new operating model backfired, despite featuring many of the current panaceas such as mobile working, online citizen engagement, borderless patrols and cross-force collaboration. Over the period of HMIC’s inspection, though, the command hub failed to get resourcing right on the ground, with officers on restricted or recuperative duties regularly rostered in, and poor communication of changes to shift patterns. Goodwill and overtime kept the wheels on in Humberside, but it’s a salutary reminder that the Digital Policing Review’s maturity assessment has to be predicated on real-world wherewithal.

What should police IT managers and suppliers make of HMIC’s focus on capabilities? A large number of forces have now been asked by the inspectorate to develop a future workforce plan which covers resource allocations and required skills. On the face of it, this is an opportunity to enhance HR platforms, specifically the duty management systems provided by the likes of Crown Computing or included in Capita’s Origin product. Upgrades to these assets are often justified by the ability to deploy the right officers in the right circumstances. Certainly, when it comes to identifying officers who are trained in firearms or tasers, or are multilingual, there’s clear value in rostering and HR software that has accurate and current enough skills data to be integrated into response and despatch processes. Many forces are reasonably far along this journey. But it’s not clear that HMIC’s skills concerns present an immediate opportunity to enhance the relevant platforms.

For one thing, rostering is a dark art in many forces, owned by a dedicated team. There’s little incentive to make the relevant software open and usable to sergeants and inspectors in charge of shifts: line managers are often viewed as overgenerous with overtime. This means that as long as the central database of skills and capabilities is tied to duty management systems, it isn’t a prime candidate to scale into a business-as-usual asset used across a force. Furthermore, once forces go beyond tracking trainable skills or languages, they enter a murkier world of soft capability assessment which is difficult to automate. HMIC is probably right when it says that forces need officers who can solve problems proactively, work effectively with other local bodies, influence, negotiate and engage with communities. And most officers who have chased promotion are going to be experienced in pointing to their achievements in these regards. But it’s very difficult to assess these skills in such a way that metrics on individual officers could fairly be captured or made relevant to automated deployment decisions.

So much of HMIC’s concern about the capabilities that forces will need as they trim their workforces comes down to culture shaping and the evolution of requirements on officers. These are real and addressable issues, but IT assets should play a minor, lagging, role in associated changes to operational behaviour. That said, the groupings where HR systems are currently out for tender, such as Surrey, Sussex and Thames Valley, or Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, should still take the opportunity to consider the skills-capturing process anew. Analytics, currently deployed to reduce the overtime bill or to track mismatches between planned and actual rosters, could do rather more in this regard to inform planning.

And HMIC’s report identifies one skills concern that genuinely can be assessed and addressed at scale. There’s a widely acknowledged need to improve and broaden capabilities in digital investigation and intelligence to combat electronic crime. This entails the need to promote and retain skills which are adequate for common online tasks, without aiming as far as the cyber supercops which the Digital Media Investigator programme hopes to develop. This, surely, is where the quick win should be for technology champions within forces and the services firms who support them. As global volume recruiters in the IT industry know, digital aptitude can be tested with reasonable fairness and efficiency. There are plenty of current suppliers to the market who could earn kudos by making their assessment tools available. Origin, Crown or challenger systems should be equal to capturing the resulting data and enabling it to inform the workforce capability plans which many forces will now be instigating. With a ready-made schema for the requisite digital skills developing under the auspices of the DII Capability Management Group, forward-thinking forces should be able to meet HMIC’s general concerns about workforce planning with concrete proposals for identifying and promoting digital skills across their entire staff.