Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580 - 599)



  Q580  Gwyn Prosser: Especially in these days of the terrorist threat.

  Chief Constable Johnston: Indeed, yes. I think it is anomalous.

  Q581  Bob Russell: Inspector Hitch, can you quantify the benefits in Bedfordshire of using mobile technologies?

  Inspector Hitch: Yes, we worked very closely with the NPIA towards the end of last year to do an informed business benefits analysis, and I think we are the only force that have taken it to the level we took it to. It is always difficult, business benefits, because we talk about driving out the benefits but it really depends on how much it costs to deliver them in the first place. I was interested in the figures from Charmaine who was talking earlier. Her figures were about the same as ours. We have £270 per officer per year for the BlackBerry system, but I know that some forces are spending five or more times that. Clearly, if I get the benefit of £270 per officer and they get the same benefits by spending five times the money, then clearly the business case does not stack up for them as much as it does for us. The results of the analysis were quite interesting. To come back to your original point, I have got a number of graphs which I would love to be able to show you because they are absolutely fascinating.

  Q582  Chairman: Would you send us the graphs. Just summarise it.

  Inspector Hitch: I can do, yes. This was an NPIA report, so it is nothing to do with me, so I have not doctored the figures in any way, although I have brought in mobile data, so I have a bit of a vested interest if I want to progress my police career. The bottom line is we were facing a big problem in Bedfordshire with officers spending time on station, and the trend was upwards, and it had been for a number of years, and it peaked at 46% officer time spent on the station, which is enormous, is it not? I was horrified by those figures, I have to say. After we introduced these devices, that fell very quickly to 36%, and it has held at 36%. These are from the activity-based costing figures that we have to do for the Home Office, so the officers are surveyed. We used to do it as time and motion studies, but every force has to conduct these. So I cannot actually say, yes, for sure, it is the devices, but it seems a remarkable coincidence, and there was nothing else in the organisation that we were doing at that time that would make me think it could be anything else. That is the "in station" time. The other one is "visible patrol" time, which went up from 14%. Currently it is 19%. So it is not a huge increase, but actually if we looked to how many officers we would need extra to do that, it would be an awful lot of officers and an awful lot of money. The final one is the time the officers spend dealing with incidents. Again, the trend had been downwards, and 18% of officer time was spent dealing with incidents. That is now going up and it is rising steadily. It is currently at 26%. So there is quite a lot of data now that we are getting together. I go back to what Mr Bobbett was saying, because he put it quite well. It is really difficult to prove some of these things. Instinctively you know they are right, but to quantify them and to actually put figures on them is quite difficult. For example, the Airwave network is encrypted. Before we had the Airwaves network criminals could listen into our radio system at will, and there were cases where they actually despatched officers to the other side of town while they would go about their business. That does not happen now with Airwave, with an encrypted network. How do we quantify that? It is really difficult to do.

  Q583  Bob Russell: Inspector Hitch, Bedfordshire Police is one of the small police forces.

  Inspector Hitch: Yes.

  Q584  Bob Russell: Are you the pace-setters in this and how do you explain the fact that another police force, unnamed, are costing five times greater than Bedfordshire?

  Inspector Hitch: To be honest, we were all learning together. If we go back to when I started this project—it was two and a half years ago—my police authority had the foresight to set aside some money, which was really good, and we got some money from the NPIA as well, but all forces were doing different things. To be honest, had we centralised at that point and, for example, the NPIA said this is the way we are going to do it, I think we would have missed a trick: because we have learnt and we have actually found out that some things are a lot more expensive than others.

  Q585  Bob Russell: Thank you for the Bedfordshire success story. Perhaps the committee ought to look at the other force, unnamed, for comparison. Chief Constable, it is good to see that British Transport Police are on-line, although we are aware that technology can have the potential to hinder as well as to help officers, and I guess this is the reason why I have been given this question, as the most technology challenged member of the committee! Can you elaborate on the down sides of technology and how this can be mitigated, and if I can just put a special pleading in here that the digits on the human hand are not altering yet the keypads seem to be getting smaller all the time.

  Chief Constable Johnston: I think this is essentially a "management has changed" issue which is not limited to the world of technology, but to make it specific around the mobile data for example, there were issues for us around battery life, and if the batteries went down you had to reboot the system, and we had to solve the battery problem for people. Officers did have some concerns about writing, with some technology in their hands, whilst they were dealing with a suspect, whereas they were much more comfortable with a notebook, and I think that is an issue about getting comfortable with your terminal which I think experience shows that you will do. I think there are problems for officers around the amount of kit we want them to carry around today—they are walking around a bit like a Christmas tree—and we have given them actually vests with pockets in them which balance the weight over their bodies to deal with those things. There is something about how do you encourage people to pick up on this technology, and we have introduced what we call "super users", who are people who have a solid reputation and who demonstrate to their colleagues that these things work really well, and they trust their colleagues and they trust hearing from them and they pick up on these things. So I think there are some things around accustomising officers to the kit, about when they can do this stop-check, when they get this information out of the system immediately which leads to an arrest, it is those sort of successes which get officers to overcome their technophobia.

  Q586  Margaret Moran: All of the learning we have from IT projects, be they very large centralised ones or otherwise, is that the greatest benefit comes from, if you like, systems reconfiguration—it is not just the technology, it is the way you deploy your people. What has happened in that respect in either of the examples that you are giving?

  Chief Constable Johnston: I think the systems reconfiguration bit, for me, is around the fact that you can actually directly access these systems and you transfer data automatically from one to another, so you are not doing it five times—you are doing it once. An officer going to an incident can be sent there on mobile data, so no writing down of details, and, when he gets there—

  Q587  Margaret Moran: Can I just clarify? I am talking about the way in which you deploy your resources, be they manpower or other, as much as the technology itself.

  Chief Constable Johnston: The big difference is we have an extra hour out on the streets (or 51 minutes is what our research showed), which is at our disposal. The systems reconfiguration bit, for me, around that is making sure that we capture that and making sure that officers do stay out and we do get the use of that 51 minutes in terms of extra visibility, rather than simply continuing with old habits and coming back to the station and taking rather more time to do things. So that is the sort of systems reconfiguration; it is about joining up data so there is not duplication, and it is about redeploying the savings that we get from the system.

  Inspector Hitch: We have got one system, which is the crime recording system for Bedfordshire, that is available now on the BlackBerry. What officers were doing previously was having to find a desktop terminal, print off their inquiries for the day, effectively (so it would be: "Go to a burglary, take a statement", and so on and so forth), and once they had done that they were coming back and updating the computer system. It was time spent forwards, backwards and all the rest of it. Now they have a BlackBerry they can do that; they can get the job from the BlackBerry, find out what they need to do, do the job, and update it sitting outside the person's house or inside the person's house in front of them. So that process has completely changed the way we do our business. However, I have to say (I come back to Mr Russell's point), officers do not change as quick as technology, and it is getting people to use it and change their working practices that we put an enormous amount of effort into, but I do not think you can ever put too much effort into it. We have still got people who really do not want to use it, and are more comfortable doing it the old way. We need a lot more focus on that, going forward.

  Q588  David Davies: Chief Constable, do you share the concerns we heard earlier on about the Airwave system? Would you agree that 75% of stations are covered?

  Chief Constable Johnston: Yes. Obviously, they will all get covered in due course and the only anxiety I have around it is the sense that the station programme is around engineering priorities rather than around operational priorities. So they get done, very sensibly, in a business sense, alongside other work that is being done around signalling and the like, but of course it does mean that some of the more important places are not getting covered as quickly as we might like.

  Q589  David Davies: Can I just ask, are you getting any extra funding for the Olympics? Obviously, the British Transport Police are going to be playing a very prominent role in that.

  Chief Constable Johnston: The Department for Transport, for the CSR period up to 2011, have agreed to fund our additional costs to a figure that we are negotiating currently.

  Q590  David Davies: Lastly, if the Chairman will allow me, can I congratulate you on the big reductions in knife crime on the Tube, which do not seem to have been reflected elsewhere in the country?

  Chief Constable Johnston: It is very interesting. On the technology front, there is a lot of debate about the effectiveness of these knife arches, but we can show a very close correlation between the growth in knife crime, the introduction of our knife arches and a decline in knife crime. Knife-enabled crime in London at its peak on our transport system was running at about 70 a month and currently it runs at about 20 a month. So that is a massive reduction. Obviously, other things have happened alongside that—we have had additional resources in other respects—but this, I think, has made a very significant difference. Again, back to the points made earlier on about alcohol, it sends out a very clear message about what we will accept and what we will not accept.

  Q591  Ms Buck: You will be familiar, Chief Constable, with the phrase "Computer says `No'". To what extent do you experience problems with technology either malfunctioning or (and I think we have had some representations and evidence to the Committee on this) technology simply not being fit for the purpose that it is applied to? I think one of the examples quoted to us was the amount of time officers can spend trying to run CCTV images which then are not compatible with other forms of technology. From an operational point of view, to what extent are there problems with technology breakdowns and technology incompatibility?

  Inspector Hitch: From the point of view of the BlackBerries, I have to say they are amazingly reliable. We have 1200 devices, we have had 19 replaced under warranty and 29 have been broken or damaged through our own fault—either run over or, in one case, a police dog ate one. The actual devices and the system, the network, are very reliable.

  Q592  Ms Buck: What happened to it?

  Inspector Hitch: The dog? I think it is okay. The BlackBerry system is very reliable. It is a commercial network; if it does not work then somebody does not get paid, somewhere along the line. There is that sort of pressure on it, which I think is really good. We are a tiny user; some of the companies that I have been to user group meetings with have 30,000-plus devices. There are 14 million of these things worldwide—they work and they are very effective. I am a strong proponent that we should be using things designed for the private sector and just adapting them to our needs rather than having a grand plan and trying to build them from scratch with public money. Breakdowns we do not get a lot of; users are the issue. Users are the absolute key. Their fingers are not getting any smaller and the technology gets quicker. It is a mistake to give them too much at one time; it is better to grow it gradually, organically, and add things to them.

  Q593  Ms Buck: So if we can just replace the people we would be all right?

  Inspector Hitch: Would that not be nice—in some cases! It is an ongoing issue. I urge all forces to spend more time with their users. Charmaine was talking about half-a-day's training. We did more than that, and I think to do it properly you do need to do more than that; you need refreshers and you need either super-users or people to come in and re-educate.

  Q594  Ms Buck: Extending that same argument, there is always a tension, is there not, between the national roll-out—the "big bang" day and the introduction of common systems in all parts of the country—and those constraints, particularly the human constraints, in terms of skills, training and resources and the possibility of things going wrong, and the fact that, as we know and heard earlier, there are different kinds of operational demands on the transport system or in an inner urban environment to a quiet, rural environment. What is your view about the pros and cons, really, of going for the advantages of uniform systems versus the disadvantage of "big bang" days and all those risks?

  Inspector Hitch: I think we have to remember that the best ideas do not come from the centre; the best ideas come from the people actually using the devices. We have made a number of changes to our system purely as a result of what the users have asked for and said. I have not sat, as a project manager, and come up with all the answers because I do not know all the answers to policing, and I think it is a mistake to centralise it and to have everybody doing exactly the same. There are different requirements in different parts of the country. For example, in parts of Scotland the Airwave coverage is the only coverage; there is hardly any mobile "phone" coverage in the Highlands. Airways is the only thing that can be used, whereas here mobile "phone" coverage is absolutely superb and there is no problem in using it.

  Q595  Ms Buck: That is a common fault and I understand that, but it is a bit of a cop-out as well, though, is it not, because the next minute we are hearing from you, understandably—or perhaps we are pressing you—about all the difficulties that arise when officers cannot talk to each other.

  Inspector Hitch: I think it is important you can talk to your own systems, but actually I think there needs to be retained some of the element of if we want to make a change to the system we can do it fairly quickly. Making a local change to Airwave is impossible; it is a complete, centralised system. Airwave works really well. I am a frontline police officer now; I am an Inspector at Luton, and Airwave works in Luton very well. However, if I wanted to make an individual tweak or change to that system, as I would do with mobile data, because I might want access to information specific to Luton, if it is a national system I can have real problems doing that. I like the idea of a national system, as long as it is one that is cost-effective. I just do not like the idea of spending loads and loads of money.

  Q596  Ms Buck: I do not think we will have the magic answer to that one.

  Chief Constable Johnston: Echoing Jim's point there, if you have an established set of processes, like we have with radios and how we use radios, and we are familiar with that, we understand it and we have a shared ambition around it, then I think the national roll-out is important. Also, radios' interoperability is very, very important. So a single approach to radios is very, very important. When you are into the new sort of technology stuff, where we are really trying out new ideas about how do we use mobile data, I think giving some freedom at the front end, as Jim says, so that the people using the kit can have some influence over our destiny, is a really important part of the way we do business here.

  Inspector Hitch: It is still very early days.

  Chairman: Margaret Moran had a supplementary on this.

  Q597  Margaret Moran: It was really the point about the "big bang" approach versus the individually tailored solutions. How adaptable do you think either of those two options are? It is the point I referred to earlier on. We can have BlackBerries today but the next generation technology will be with us next month. How do we make sure that we genuinely are ready for that technology?

  Chief Constable Johnston: At the moment we have two real choices of the platform to do this, obviously: the Airwave platform or mobile "phone" technology as a platform. With Airwave we have the route there to a common approach and that is the route down which we go, but I think the Airwave front end bit is significantly inferior to the other facilities that we are currently using on mobile "phones". When the new mobile "phone" technology comes along, I think the ability to switch into that is going to be important because it will give us greater band width and it will give us the ability to get photos on the system. However, in terms of interoperability, the important thing for the individual officer on the street is to get back on to all of these systems back at the ranch, which they can do regardless, in a sense, of the platform. It is whether you have the software which links you into it which is the important thing.

  Inspector Hitch: There is always a risk with technology of buying something and it going out of date very quickly. That is less likely to happen with a platform such as BlackBerry because they have to change or they go out of business, whereas if we have an artificially created state system they do not go out of business. With mobile data I think if we do not change quickly enough then things can easily develop and we will not be able to use them.

  Chief Constable Johnston: There is a point around Airwave where we have the creation of a monopoly supplier situation.

  Q598  Mrs Dean: Do you agree with Airwave Solutions' assessment that the rushed way in which additional capital funding was recently made available for mobile information initiatives did not allow forces to undertake the depth of research needed to ensure the best fit with longer-term strategic requirements?

  Chief Constable Johnston: We have been speaking to Airwave since about 2005 around mobile data and its uses to the Police Service. If I am being brutally honest, I do not think they showed a very high level of interest in it. So this debate has been around a long while; this has not just come across us. All of us, I think, have had plenty of time to think about it. The roll-out programme itself takes a number of months. We were talking about mobile data this time last year and now it comes on to the agenda to be delivered. So I think a number of months have gone by for us to work out what we would like to do. I do not think I would share their perspective on that at all. The other suppliers have shown fleet of foot, and I think forces have been able to cope with the opportunities that have been presented to them.

  Q599  Mrs Dean: Do you agree with that, Inspector?

  Inspector Hitch: I was disappointed that Mr Bobbett did not get asked the question how much would his solution cost, because I think he would be a lot, lot more expensive than that. For what extra it would offer, if anything, I am not a great fan of going that route. That is a personal view.

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