The Digital Policing Review Capability Assessment 2017 launches on Thursday 20th April. But what does “digital” really mean? And why did everyone need a new word for IT, anyway? Technology has defined how we communicate, consume media and run businesses for generations. Yet in barely a decade, staid IT consulting firms rushed to reinvented themselves as digital service providers, and programme managers with Twitter habits became chief digital officers, without much consensus on what the term conveys.

It’s even tougher to prove that digital policing is something new. The NPCC’s digital policing board has three objectives: online interaction with the public, electronic evidence sharing, and responding to online crime while investigating electronic footprints of criminality. All of these are vitally important, but all are longstanding issues in policing.

However, we think that digital is more than a buzzword. To Vigilant Research, digital is specifically the mode of business exemplified by the technology and operational culture of stock market darlings like Airbnb or Uber. Not because of what they do – they usually disrupt existing markets, either by reversing information asymmetries or as a cheap intermediary – but because of how they do it. Such firms have grown rapidly through reliance on online channels and process automation. They are highly responsive to customer demands. They adapt suddenly to threats, market opportunities and technology innovations.

And the reinvented consultancies have plenty to say about how to adopt the digital business mode. But much of it is pitched at commercial organisations which want to win – and keep – newly savvy and impatient consumers. In law enforcement, talk of repeat customers is usually ironic: the service would certainly prefer every engagement with victims, witnesses and offenders to be a one-off.

Even discussion specifically of digital public services can feel off-target in policing. Ever since the Government Digital Service was a gleam in Francis Maude’s eye, narratives about digital transformation in government have proposed panaceas to the challenges of austerity which invoke choice, transparency and citizen empowerment. These ideals can make sense when applied to health, education or social care, but much less so when applied to law enforcement and public safety.

But, fortunately, some key aspects of the digital business mode are highly relevant to policing and to the service’s use of technology. Let’s look at four of these.

First, processes within digital businesses are seamlessly aligned with information platforms. There is a common frame of reference across working practices, workflows, data and technology assets. What does this look like in policing? At a very basic level, police staff don’t need to re-key information from one system to another. At the highest echelons, the force has a chief information officer with a seat at the top table, rather than a technology leader answerable to the finance and resources boss. In between, there are plenty of signs that integrated information management is built into process improvement across the force, and our report examines them in detail.

Second, the digital business mode assumes that process is automated wherever practical or desirable. This doesn’t mean that decisions are delegated to computers, but they can be taken at scale, as when flexible grading parameters are applied to particular types of incident. Even so, attitudes to automation vary considerably within the police technology community. And generally speaking, the second aspect relies on the first: you can only automate what you can see as an end-to-end process.

The third aspect relates to self-serve. In a commercial digital business the objective of self-serve is to engage, inform and transact with consumers while ruthlessly minimising their interactions with staff. We are interested in self-serve for citizens, especially victims and witnesses of crime, and keenly track the digital public contact agenda. But we are just as concerned about self-serve for officers. Immediate access to information, situational intelligence, and guidance on professional practice, in a user-friendly format, allows officers and police staff to make rapid operational decisions independently, with confidence. The link between empowerment, efficiency and effectiveness is key to the self-serve aspect of digital in policing.

The fourth aspect is a tremendous hunger for ingestion and analysis of volume data to support human or algorithmic decision making, and to ensure that the business is alert to new opportunities – for policing, this translates into new or significant vectors of threat and risk. This aspect is at best patchy across the service, sometimes because of concerns about proportionality and legitimacy, but sometimes because capacity and appetite are lacking.

So digital policing, for us, is the transformation of mainstream policing by adopting certain aspects of the digital business mode. No police force is ever going to behave like a start-up. But in an age of shrinking budgets and demanding public expectations, smarter automation and self-serve are key to better management of incident reporting and response. Technology buyers need to access the niche capabilities which have evolved to be commodified and modular enough for digital firms. Information architecture strategies need to be bold enough to allow for step-changes in processes for investigation and for generating and accessing intelligence, without fear of creating new demand.

The Digital Policing Review Capability Assessment 2017 examines how and why forces in England and Wales vary so much in their approaches to the digital realm. Much of what we assess is police technology. But we hope that this provides the best guide to how, where, and why the service is adopting the digital business mode. Police and government readers should drop us a line on LinkedIn, email info@vigilantresearch.com or complete the form at vigilantresearch.com to secure their complimentary copy, to be sent out first thing on Thursday.