Shrinking budgets spur creativity in public safety IT

Agencies say they are looking to squeeze more value out of existing investments

Shrinking budgets have driven many public safety organizations to focus on wringing value out of existing IT implementations and take a close look at whether new technologies actually make sense.

"The more we spend on ICT, the less efficient we become," said Simon Parr, chief constable for Cambridgeshire Police in England. He spoke Wednesday during the Public Safety Symposium hosted by Microsoft at its Redmond, Washington, headquarters.

As an example, he referred to an investment in his department to digitize recordings. "It's just a different version of electronic paper because it will just get typed out," he said. The recordings are sent away to someone who transcribes them. "Why not just write it down in the first place? When I used to do that, they were immediately ready," he said. Now, he has to wait for the transcription before he can review the contents of the recording.

Organizations like his have to now think very carefully about implementing such technologies because their budgets are under pressure. "The economic reality around the world is austerity. There's no money to spend on new technologies," he said.

He's been charged with cutting £20 million (US$31 million) from his budget and has pledged not to cut any constables in the process. That means he has to figure out how to help them work smarter, not harder, and how to make existing investments pay off, he said.

Vendors have a role to play in this process, he said. The role of the industry is to "stop selling us things you know we don't need," he said.

Because of budget pressure, he can afford only to spend money on IT if it maximizes the spending he's already made, he said. That means vendors can either get a little money out of him to help do that, or they'll get no money from him at all, he said. "I will spend more with you but only when I've driven out every penny of what I've already paid you," he said.

He's not alone. While in past years, public safety organizations built two or three year IT planning windows, now those windows are five to seven years out, said Jeff Vining, an analyst with Gartner. "It's rationalizing the existing portfolio, using what you have," he said.

One way Parr suggests that vendors can help him make better use of existing investments is to integrate existing products. He envisions a better way to use existing Microsoft products he already uses including Bing Maps, Exchange, Outlook, Dynamics, Sharepoint and Windows mobile devices. "What I've started to do is look at all of this and say, let's see what we can do with it," he said.

He envisions typing in an address related to an emergency call to Bing Maps and seeing other relevant data pop up on the map, including nearby security camera footage, information about a sex offender who lives nearby and the report from a burglary that happened nearby the night before.

An officer could open Sharepoint and see information about the person who placed the call, including that the caller has called before about domestic violence and including details of her estranged husband's car. That might let a responding officer recognize that car when driving to the site.

All of the information could be sent to a mobile device and a nearby police car's navigation system. An incident item could flash in the car and the officer could touch to accept. That would automatically display the address and directions in the navigation system, so the officer doesn't have to input it manually.

He then envisions an incident report being saved as an item in Outlook calendar. Two weeks later when someone asks about the incident, the officer can easily look it up on the calendar.

"This can all be done," he said.

Parr described another idea to do away with much of the paper used through the legal system. In Microsoft One Note, he envisions a template for incident reports that essentially includes just a video or audio clip. An officer could record a clip of questioning of a person at the scene. "What's more powerful than a statement made at the time?" Parr said.

His hope would be that such clips could replace paper statements in legal proceedings, but he acknowledged there are hurdles. "Will we ever get judges to understand that you don't have to print something out for it to be true," he wondered.

There are a couple of reasons these kinds of scenarios aren't reality, he said. One is that some agencies still have a mindset that they are different than regular businesses and require specialized products, he said.

Some may also be hampered by feeling embarrassed that they've spent too much on specialized products that aren't working out as promised, he said.

Lack of imagination or courage might also be holding some agencies back, he said.

Regulations also present challenges, he and others said. One audience member asked how to allow workers to be innovative because there are so many rules. Parr suggested it depends on leadership. "As the head of my organization, I give people permission to try things. I try things that are against the rules but I'm the chief and I'll take the hit for that," he said.

Parr also complained about regulations, particularly those that require him to follow ultra-high security clearances. "Some of them are the same that the military uses when they decide they want to pop a missile through someone's bathroom window. I don't think my data is that dangerous. But if I can't use it because of ridiculous security, what's the point in having it?"

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is

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