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Ex-mandarin hides plans for world domination behind criticism of Police

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As Parliament prepares to recess this week and MPs pack suntan lotion and head for the Tuscan hills, it's traditional for government departments to sneak out important reports and make major announcements of future initiatives on the sly. So it was no surprise last week to find the “Review of Criminal Information” (ROCI) making its way on to the public stage.

Nor was it a shock to find in Parliament the Home Secretary giving the report a wholehearted welcome. She commited pressing ahead with some of its key recommendations.

So what is it? The focus of the ROCI is the “recording and sharing of information on criminality for the purposes of public protection”. Information on criminality is defined as: “Any information which is, or may be, relevant to the prevention, investigation, prosecution, or penalising of crime.” That is broad!

The report was supervised by Sir Ian Magee, a former permanent secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs and head of profession for operational delivery for the Civil Service. He is now, among other things, a senior adviser to management consultants Booz Allen Hamilton.

Predictably, the national press have picked up on the headline-grabbing failure mentioned in the report. Some four years after Sir Michael Bichard reported on the Soham murders, nine out of 31 key recommendations have not been implemented. These include a one-stop shop national police database – now put back to 2010 – and a mechanism for electronically integrating court decisions with the police national computer.

Boo! Hiss! In this way, a 156-page report representing some quite formidable thinking is reduced to a couple of brickbats hurled in the direction of inefficient government. Before we join that chorus of criticism, we should think a little about what we are criticising.

The need for e-government and information-sharing is a constant theme of the Labour government. This gave us first the Office of the e-Envoy, and more recently the Cabinet Office e-Government Unit. There are major benefits (efficiency) and big drawbacks (loss of privacy) to sharing information. Research suggests that depending on time of day and question asked, the public are aware of both issues, and fully support both points of view.

Some big projects – such as the centralisation of NHS data – now look like they are about to hit the buffers. A great deal of inter-departmental data sharing may have increased efficiency – but may also be seriously illegal. Government desire to act may have got ahead of changes to the legal framework, and this could be one of the big parliamentary stories in the next session.

One area where data sharing and central databases have been seen as possible panacea is in respect of criminal information. The failure of Soham was defined as the failure of some government agencies to share information with some other agencies – and so began our national obsession with tracking criminals.

Sir Ian rightly highlights the near impossibility of doing this: just take a look at the diagram on page 103 of the report. This illustrates the proliferation of different data sources that COULD be invoked in support of this project and then – if you are a systems analyst – go and have a nervous breakdown. He rightly rules out a single central database.

In its place, Sir Ian talks about a central body, responsible for governance and setting interoperability standards between systems. That may be a more realistic goal, but is still a highly centralising objective.

Read between the lines, and you will find a degree of inter-departmental landgrab going on. The main thrust is toward the creation of a Commission for Public Protection Information (CPPI), whose job will be to advise Ministers on the sharing of criminality information. Along the way, the report takes a number of swipes at the National Police Improvement Agency, who are currently responsible for hi-tech projects.

They are characterised as having more to do with “reputation and finance”: they may also be implicated in the failure to deliver the big Police Database project. On the other hand, as the report does not mention, the NPIA’s readiness to go toe to toe with Qinetiq and cancel the Police Portal system when it believed it was not up to scratch. This could indicate the existence of a government body that does not automatically cave in to suppliers.

It is very easy to criticise the Government for failing to deliver on big IT projects. Sometimes, however, we forget that some of these may be projects we’d rather they did not deliver anyway. One factor making criminal information projects so large is the need to incorporate a great deal of information that is not criminal at all: allegations and hearsay are likely to be at the centre of many new systems.

That doesn’t even begin to address cost issues: again, next year, Parliament may at last wake up to the enormous cost of the various surveillance and data initiatives that are underway. Ssmeone may actually ask whether they are worth the money..

Although Sir Ian Magee’s report was the one that made headlines, a far more interesting paper was delivered last month by Peter Neyroud, chief executive of the NPIA. In this paper, he and his fellow authors argue that “factual questions about the effectiveness of new technologies... in detecting and preventing crime should not, and cannot, be separated from ethical and social questions surrounding the impact which these technologies might have upon civil liberties”.

Quite. Some government bodies, some reports, appear to pay lip service to this debate. So far, Mr Neyroud appears to be the only senior figure seriously taking part in it - only this does not a headline make. ®

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