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It's all about the Data

For decades policing has been in a perpetual state of reform; finding new ways of working, adjusting structures, updating strategies, setting priorities, seeking innovation, and constantly subject to review, with complexity increasing as each year passes.

With local, regional and national structures, a plethora of technology systems, a complex web of different organisations all with related and slightly overlapping roles to play in keeping people safe, together with the constant drive to be ever more efficient, it’s hardly surprising that driving change on a national scale in policing is an uphill battle.

Setting a coherent vision that works at both a local and national level is a real issue in policing. There are many complicated problems that are often viewed in isolation without a sense of how it all hangs together. Top-down initiatives to tackle violence against women and girls or safeguarding the most vulnerable are often competing for the same scarce funds with bottom-up capability development initiatives. At the heart of policing, the common theme of data as both intelligence and evidence provides the golden thread that pulls these initiatives together end to end.

However, as 2023 begins, this renewed focus on the role of data presents an opportunity to drive change at local, regional and national level.

The volume of data available in policing today is phenomenal, but the ability to fully understand and exploit it is not nearly as good as it could be. Both data quality and the ability to exploit it are far poorer than its importance as a strategic asset demands. Barriers can be structural, technological, legal and cultural, and it is questionable whether a clear, consistent pathway to turn available data into intelligence and management information exists.

The NPCC, APCC and Police Digital Service National Policing Digital Strategy 2020-2030 recognises the strategic importance of putting data and the information that can be derived from it at the heart of policing’s digital vision, given the ever increasing data volumes and data complexity that present both threats and opportunities to policing today. While strategic priorities change over time, tackling budgetary, resourcing and skills challenges and the ever more pressing need to restore trust in policing remains a constant theme, and more effective use of data within and across forces is critical. We must be driven by evidence, both on the frontline and at the most strategic levels, enabling rapid decision making.

With this in mind, Principle One has been working to define an efficient operating model to underpin effective data analysis, recognising the fundamental need for an overarching strategy to deliver the vision of a consistent, coherent foundation for effective use of data across the policing landscape. As with any transformation initiative in policing, the first question is how to balance across national, regional and local level, a problem that Tania Eagle knows too well.

“With the centre providing the financial and legislative framework, whilst respecting the operational and political independence of Chief Constables and PCCs, getting the right balance of capabilities at different levels is tricky. Data is so central to operational policing, that there is quite rightly a reluctance to give control to the centre. The answer is often focused on how the centre can support and enable forces; the challenge is always working out exactly what this means in practice.”

Designing an operating model that will drive better use of data at all levels of policing, will need:

  • An understanding of the fundamentally different requirements of policing at each level; from strategic decision makers seeking to maximise the value of resources and spend their budgets effectively through to analysts seeking to identify and link key items of digital evident together to secure a better outcome for victims of crime (Stakeholders);

  • A methodical approach to understanding the evidence and information needed to make these decisions (Requirements);

  • The data and analytics needed to inform the evidence (Enablers);

  • An understanding of the barriers to accessing and analysing the data (Constraints).

Understanding these factors enables us to put together the initial building blocks of a Mission Model Canvas, which helps us to define the operational framework needed to drive data capability development.

By mapping out these drivers, it becomes much clearer what role that central organisations can play in driving best practice around data. By focusing on a set of enabling services that are centred around improving standards, enabling access and driving best practice and the adoption of new capability through working more closely with industry, there is a key role to play around accelerating the uplift in data capability and ensuring that locally driven innovation is neither stifled nor slowed by the need for central approval and budgets.

“The single most important role of a central data analytics capability is empowering local innovations” states Phil Tomlinson, himself a former Senior Investigating Officer. “True innovation around the use of data, how we may combine it and use it in ways that no one has yet thought of has to come from the operational practitioners. Only they can keep pace with the opportunities and threats presented by new data sources and are close enough to the data on a day-to-day basis to understand the operation value and benefits.”

Where national capability can add the most value is where it supports local innovation and drives the ability to scale up local breakthroughs at a regional and national level. Dialogue is key, enabling best practice to be shared proactively from a local level but also building on national engagement to ensure that opportunities for a consistent approach, in particular to skills development and data governance, are fully realised.

We hear a lot about the challenges around quality of data across policing, with data duplicated in many places, often stored in multiple formats and held for different purposes and periods of time. There is no question that data quality continues to be important; it is key to driving trust in data and encourage wider interoperability and sharing. However, extending the focus beyond data quality into data governance will bring a structured approach and a consistent language, enabling more effective collaboration across policing while improving effective interoperability to support wider data sharing across the criminal justice system. Again, this is where a national capability can drive a culture change and offer support to enact practical improvements at a local level.

Once the balance of roles is established, the next challenge becomes putting in place a sustainable approach to driving a sustained and continuous cycle of effective exploitation of data. No sector of government has been subjected to more capability reviews or short-term discovery projects and there needs to be an acknowledgement that what is needed is a systematic approach to keep pace with the changing priorities of law enforcement through a continued and responsive focus on data capabilities.

Unlocking the power of policing data is one of the greatest challenges faced by law enforcement today. Principle One believes there is a compelling need for a National Policing Data Strategy to set out the key principles to drive improvement and to be adopted in parallel with the National Digital Strategy. Only by treating data as a core asset, with a ten-year strategy to harness the opportunities and tackle the threats that it presents, will we see the necessary step change in data management that policing so badly needs.

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