2 June 2012 by Chris Edwards
Someone thought the bobby's beat could be transformed, and extended, through the application of a little Blackberry-enabled magic. That layers of bureaucracy would miraculously drop away by making coppers stab at a keypad the size of a matchbox instead of typing on a full-size keyboard back at the station. It showed, if nothing else, a touching if seriously misguided faith in the ability of technology to sear away unnecessary paperwork.
As a result, government attention was not really focused on what happened after the personal digital assistants and smartphones were handed out in a programme that cost £71m.
MPs reported that the department responsible for the programme claimed doling out thousands of mobile devices would "deliver around £500 million cashable savings". This figure then dropped to £125m. "In the end, the 32 forces who responded to the National Audit Office survey only reported total cashable savings of around £600,000 (annually) from 2011."
The trouble was obvious practically from the first answer to the first question of the evidence-gathering sessions, which came from Ailsa Beaton, director of information and chief information officer at the Metropolitan Police.
"I am happy to start off," said Beaton. "The issue with this particular piece of work and this particular initiative was the way that it started, as opposed to its results, in that the objective for the project was to hand out a number of mobile devices to the police service as opposed to some business benefit that came from handing out devices.
"If I look at, for example, the project that we had in the Metropolitan Police Service, there is a business benefit which doesn't come from simply giving officers a PDA device benefits they arise because of what is on that device and the way that that device is tied to back-end systems."
MPs remarked that the police representatives during that session seemed to be the A* grade students. These were people who actually had a plan for the mobiles. "The Metropolitan police has saved about £1 million year rolling out its 3,700 devices," Beaton added. "Because instead of someone writing out a ticket for a member of the public - whether that is for a stop and search or a fixed penalty notice - and then someone having to key that in at the office, what goes into the PDA device automatically goes into the back-end computer systems."
The Met was not alone in seeing benefits. Officers in Hampshire Police, for example, "can now take a statement at the house of a victim or witness, have it signed electronically on the mobile device, and send it straight to the custody suite at the police station and into the electronic court file", the MP's report said.
Beaton quickly outlined the problem, a familiar one to most people who have learned the hard way about deploying new systems but not a lesson that civil servants and politicians have picked up on.
Beaton explained: "The difficulty is that the 43 forces do not all have the same back-end systems, so it is not as if when you have put a mobile device into one police force and you simply take what you have done there to make it work in another force, because that other force would have a different set of back-end systems that need integration."
Reading the report, it's a surprise that anyone got a result out of the programme - it is a testament to those who were ready for it. However, they were probably ready to make the move with or without the push from central government.
Given the way in which the European Union is encouraging public and private companies to embrace mobile devices and ambient intelligence, the parliamentary report is a salutary reminder of how it will take many more changes in the way programmes such as these are organised to see any benefit other than a bit of stimulus spending for far Eastern production facilities.
Posted By: Chris Edwards @ 02 June 2012 04:52 PM General
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