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Study reveals gaps in UK system to track criminal and terror finance

Lots of data, but police can't or won't use it fully

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The new-look Elmer should give LEAs remote read-only, semi-searchable access to Elmer. This improves the previous regime in that some LEAs reported that the search request process was laborious and time-consuming, but also means that SAR data will have to be pulled by the LEAs rather than pushed by NCIS. A further phase of Elmer was scheduled for early 2006, and is intended to include advanced data mining. Fleming comments that this "places the onus on the use of SARs squarely on LEA shoulders. LEAs - particularly the MPS (Metropolitan Police Service) - will need to devise ways to find those SARs which represent a priority. The one-by-one manual evaluation of SARS upon receipt may forcibly become a thing of the past."

LEAs will therefore have moved from a position where they were given to large pile of data to sort through, but generally didn't, through a period where the pile was smaller and more targeted, to a point where the pile is central, and it's largely up to them to access it remotely and maximise its value. All LEAs will have online access to all SARs (with the exception of terrorism-related ones, which raises the question of how you define a terrorism-related SAR), but what we have here, although a picture of the new-look Elmer, is really only half of a system.

Fleming's ability to conclude that SARs are under-utilised was impeded to some extent by woeful management and record keeping by LEAs. There's very little data available on how effectively and extensively they use SARs, so it's not particularly practical to attempt a precise measurement of their performance.

As Fleming observes: "Few carrots or sticks drive the use of SARs, no performance indicators encourage LEAs to make proactive/reactive use of SARs (and only things which are measured appear to get done)." Which is not a climate wholly unfamiliar to many other Government employees. In the absence of carrots or sticks, SARs drop down the priority list. They're difficult to "sell" to operational teams (presumably pushing forms back and forward isn't sexy enough), the request process (the one Elmer ought now to be abolishing) is laborious and time-consuming, and there's little automation of cross-checking.

That last one's particularly interesting, in light of Fleming's view that manual checking will forcibly become a thing of the past. Many LEAs are using Word or Excel to track their SARs, and it's therefore not entirely surprising that there's not a lot of tracking data available from them. Either app is perfectly tolerable as something that allows you to look at a .CSV somebody's sent you, but if you want to check that data against a database then there are clearly a few other things you're going to have to do. LEAs' case management capabilities are limited (kind of makes you wonder, given their line of work), and Elmer is not a case management system. One of Fleming's recommendations is for greater use of case management, and he reports that many LEAs feel that the production of a uniform, nationwide case management system would make the regime far more effective.

Which one way or another will mean more expense, simply to get SARs to function with any great degree of effectiveness. A number of Fleming's "critical" recommendations will be familiar to students of Government IT disasters. The SARs regime should be given a clear owner (likely NCIS/SOCA). The regime's aims objectives and principles should be set down, and LEAs should make "constant, unwavering use of the Elmer database" (tricky one this, if you're just peering at a terminal and wondering what to do with your search results). LEAs should have clear performance targets and (here we enter tech challenge territory) "NCIS/SOCA should ensure that Phase II of the Elmer rollout - with its advanced analytical capabilities - is delivered on schedule." And even more challenging "database cross-checks between Elmer and relevant national databases (e.g. PNC, JARD [Joint Asset Recovery Database]) should be automated, such that database hits are highlighted when looking at a SAR or series of SARs on Elmer; this should be handled by NCIS/SOCA, perhaps in conjunction with the Police Information Technology Organisation."

There's clearly more expense associated with that last one, which sounds well on the way to being a more extensive and comprehensive national system, and it reminds us that the ability of police systems to talk to one another is still pretty limited. Overall, you could call it an everyday story of tech-happy Government, all data-ed up but nowhere to stick it. More and more data is scooped up in the name of greater efficiency, enhanced crime fighting ability, combating terror, whatever, but scant attention is paid to what will actually be done with the data until people start wondering why the system isn't working, loudly enough. Then, just maybe, the decision-makers will start to contemplate paying for the kind of joined-up system they should have commissioned in the first place.

Fleming's study is not obviously available on the Home Office's pretty ('Now with added dysfunctionality!') web site, but can be obtained here. ®

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