The police are doing the best they can – but it won’t be enough as long as they’re obliged to operate with an information system that’s completely outdated, writes Rosie Beacon
Information has always been foundational to the smooth running of any public service – even before the age of the cloud. Without a set of core data, you’re flying blind. It’s why, during the pandemic, the Department for Work and Pensions stores of details on welfare claimants was of paramount importance. In policing, a service plagued with accusations of being out-of-date and out-of-touch, the Police National Computer (PNC) is the closest thing.
The PNC is indisputably the most important national policing information system in the UK. It is used by front line officers from all 43 local police forces, as well as the 127 other organisations that need to access the data it holds. Yet despite its obvious importance, this computer is 49 years old, or seven years older than the Prime Minister.
There’s a consensus across the parties that as a nation we need to do more to address crime and keep communities safe. And this is often thought to be a simple case of more police on the streets – but we also need to get smarter about how we analyse crime and how we use that analysis to make operations more effective.
Legacy data infrastructure may often be disregarded as the domain of back office and tech consultancies. But the case of the Police National Computer uniquely demonstrates how important it is for governments to continually prioritise technological infrastructure. An understated problem with this approach to data infrastructure – especially in emergency services – is the real life, human opportunity cost.
We’ve come a long way in our understanding of the importance and value of data, but that hasn’t always been the case. The PNC’s back-up server was once located by an oil storage terminal that burnt to the ground and took the server with it. The loss of the back up server ultimately precluded the police connecting to the Schengen Information System, an enormous EU-wide system for the collection and exchange of information between different law enforcement agencies.
Politicians of all parties look to the police to exercise ‘data driven decision making’. But officers might complain they have to do so without the tools of a 21st century, modernised police force. The police’s fundamental database – that in 2019-2020, the police searched or updated 133 million times – is based on obsolete technology, expensive to operate and difficult to update.
It is true that ‘data’ as a term can be so overused, that it’s easy to dismiss it as polemical or niche, rather than see it as an essential tool at the government’s disposal. But looking at the bigger picture, technology has the potential to fundamentally reorder how the state functions – applied in every beneficial way possible, it would drive down the cost of public services while improving outcomes. By some contrast, the Police National Computer demonstrates how government and public services face increasing costs, slowing services and building public frustration.
The PNC was supposed to be overhauled by 2020 culminating in a new system that combined a number of different police databases. Unfortunately, following the predictable pattern of too many government ICT projects, the revamp has ended up being poorly managed, heavily contracted to external organisations, insufficiently prioritised and over budget. This overhaul has now been pushed back to 2026, when the PNC will have formally celebrated half a century.
Another unfortunate addition to the PNC saga is that it is not an isolated incident. The update to the Emergency Services Network – which the police, fire and ambulance service in England, Scotland and Wales use for communications between control rooms and the field – was supposed to be delivered by 2019, but this update is still yet to emerge.
In part, the story here is one of national policy and local activity. While they are all united in a common goal of crime prevention, each police force has its own processes and procedures. So developing and introducing national police technology systems ends up being more of a challenge than it needs to be because the Home Office does not generally direct the police to accept a particular ICT system or way of working.
The notion that the critical infrastructure underpinning our emergency services is on the verge of collapse is absurd but mostly unnerving. New police on the beat is always a popular headline. But those officers can only do so much: they need serious investment in the infrastructure to allow them to do their job better. Ultimately, we will all benefit from that.