Police Digital Service: a new sense of purpose


Following the Police ICT Company’s change of identity to the Police Digital Service last year, CEO Ian Bell talks to Philip Mason about the achievements of the past 12 months, and plans for the organisation going forward.

Police Digital Service CEO, Ian Bell
Police Digital Service CEO, Ian Bell
What was the rationale behind the rebranding from the Police ICT Company to the Police Digital Service? 

I guess the whole thing for me was about generating a new sense of purpose for central capability. There was a certain amount of frustration around the amount of time we needed in order to work through and deliver the National Policing Digital Strategy as a product. We were therefore eager to give it teeth and make it tangible, which ultimately meant being able to corral resources. 

With that in mind, one of the things we recognised was the need for a delivery vehicle with a central capability that was able to invest time, as well as advise and consult across law enforcement. We wanted something which could look at the ‘niches’ of the strategy, what priorities might look like, and discover what bits were missing.

We then started reflecting on the Police ICT Company itself. Was it as purposeful in its vision as had been the case when it was originally stood up? 

Was it as purposeful in its vision?   

Probably not, to be honest, since the purpose itself had already shifted as engagement with key national partners progressed. We therefore took the opportunity to evolve it, taking account of its much broader remit, particularly around the delivery of the strategy.

I spent some time working with the Police ICT Company board, and we also brought in stakeholders including the National Police Technology Council. We looked specifically at capability, what was needed, and what we were going to call it if it were to truly reflect what policing expected us to deliver.

The one thing that we were never able to do with the Police ICT Company was to fix it into the policing landscape and have it accepted in the way that it needed to be. To have it be regarded as that trusted, credible partner that could look at all things in the realm of digital, data and technology from every angle. It did a lot of good commercial work, but it never really had the scope or the scale to be seen as that.

Was there a certain amount of baggage that came along with the Police ICT Company name?

Honestly, my big concern was to ensure the brand was relatable. I’ve not really been interested in ‘baggage’ throughout this whole process, rather my focus has been on building something that can deliver what policing needs. All I’ve wanted to make sure is that we have a national strategy with the resources in order to see the work get done.

When I looked at the vision for the Police Digital Service I tried to approach it from all angles. We wanted something credible from day one, so people could really understand what we were launching and why.

How has the strategy changed since the name change? How is the identity of the organisation palpably different?

The main difference is that we now have a clear structure to support digital delivery from end to end.

We’ve always said that we regard ’21/’22 as a pathfinder year, giving us time to focus on the foundations of effective delivery. At the same time, we have also obviously needed to balance the ongoing needs and expectations of local and national partners.

Our deliverables also relate to the 12 or 13 current national policing technology programmes, which have been re-homed within the Police Digital Service. We need to maintain core functions and deliver the digital strategy, while at the same time informing and advising national programmes so that policing becomes a better customer.

How are the changes to the organisation manifesting themselves in real terms? Can you give examples?

We’re developing an exciting proposition when it comes to DDaT [digital, data and technology]. Wayne Parkes has become our new chief digital data and technology officer, with strategy and innovation being driven forward through that role.

Again, that’s about innovating when it comes to the offering, looking at evergreen cloud developments, blueprints across other cloud environments and so on. How we build a foundation set of products which policing can lift and just consume.

At the same time, we also now have a chief data officer who is building a national data office for the first time, having previously been head of data science and data analytics for John Lewis/Marks & Spencer. He’s beginning to give us purposeful insights into the natural data pillars and the problems that we need to be solving from that perspective.

How is the work that you’re doing being fed back to individual forces?

One of the key things we’ve done is get chief superintendent Dave Jackson onboard as our business engagement director. He’s been seconded from leading on command and control at the Met.

Dave is starting to focus on putting together a common narrative in relation to the Police Digital Service, as well as reflecting back to us productivity, efficiency, innovation taking place within forces. The engagement focus will be huge, and we want this to be recognisable to police and crime commissioners, building a narrative for chief constables.

One thing we didn’t necessarily do with the Police ICT Company was make sure that our information made its way to different layers of the organisation. This is not just a technology problem but also a business change issue, taking in information assurance, broader security and so on.

Dave will really start to pull that narrative together, both for internal and external organisations such as suppliers.

One of the most recent examples of a successful IT roll-out across UK policing was the leveraging of Microsoft Teams at the start of the pandemic. What learning has come out of that? 

Firstly, while we might have brought all the programmes together, one thing I won’t do is take credit for the brilliant work of the National Enabling Programme. What they did in terms of licensing, shaping, guiding and governance during that process was extraordinarily valuable.

There was also clearly a huge role that forces played in this – they bought into it, and believed it was the right thing to do. Ultimately, that was the absolute guide. It happens when forces are for ready it to happen, and we don’t force anything on anyone.

For the six weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, there were, of course, varying opinions and some knee-jerk reactions, but we were able to hold the line in terms of investment in Microsoft 365. There were calls coming in saying that we need Google Meet or Zoom, but we knew Microsoft was a very quick, very accessible and very secure path.

I’m incredibly proud of how we made it happen as a digital community. The work that our local tech leaders carried out – there are something like 50,000 Teams users in the Met – in such a short space of time was phenomenal. 

Looking at it from the perspective of the PDS itself, we’ve actually had to build everything virtually using Teams. To be honest, that’s not a problem I would have chosen to have, but we did it. And now you see high-level meetings – chiefs’ council – being held virtually. 

Finally, how is the Police Digital Service continuing the Police ICT Company’s work in the realm of procurement? Is that evolving as well?

I’d say that we’re starting to move into a much more informed space from a commercial perspective. We’ve been working on a programme called ‘data driven commercials’, aimed at obtaining dynamic insights rather than ones which are a year or 18 months old. The idea is to look at good propositions – alongside technologists and other business leaders – saying “OK, how can we buy this stuff better?”.

It’s an incredibly exciting time for the whole force.

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