Demonstrating sound data mobilisation solutions
Amongst some IT suppliers there appears to be the belief that by simply delivering off-the-shelf software into a force, their role in the project is complete. This belies the fact that a solution that works for one force may not automatically work for another.
Aside from the multitude of back-end systems in use, individual forces often use different workflows and business processes from their peers to achieve the same goals. A supplier, then, has to fully engage with the force during its requirements gathering phases to understand this. On the other hand, some forces have very clear ideas about what they want from a project, with some exemplar forces having business analysts working for 12-18 months prior to tender to develop a comprehensive mobilisation strategy – achieving successful implementations as a result. Some are willing to share this research, which can be an invaluable starting point for those forces without the business analyst resources.
It also follows that if there have been successful data mobilisation projects, there must be suppliers in the market with the requisite experience of working on them. A force new to data mobilisation – or considering a change following a failed project – must engage with this type of supplier.
The burden of implementing data mobilisation projects in the last three years has been considerably eased by the provision of £80 million in funding from the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA). Forces can also call upon the NPIA’s growing experience in data mobilisation, where it can: monitor and support the development of business cases; provide expertise on solution design, development and deployment; and act as a critical friend to the force throughout the delivery of the solution.
Some three years on from the start of this funding stream, its approach is to identify potential suppliers to key areas of policing, seek out champion products (as well as providing challenger products) and enable cost effective implementation of approved and where possible, standardised solutions such as MIDAS across forces. All this is in the name of efficiency and cost control.
We should not underestimate the benefits to policing of the NPIA’s funding. Some of these benefits are not realised directly through the arrival of the NPIA’s cheque. The injection of capital from the centre provided forces with cash to start mobile data projects, but at the same time it stimulated suppliers to develop and improve their solutions. Market forces working for the benefit of policing – who’d have thought it? However, as we all know only too well, markets can change. Firstly, the central stimulus has ended. Secondly, the economic climate has completely changed the commercial considerations around data mobilisation. Not only is the NPIA funding gone, but forces themselves are now under pressure to cut capital spending as well as revenue costs. So what is the future for data mobilisation?
The need for efficiency
The same drivers for mobilising data still exist in the new climate, but the need for efficiency and cost savings are even more critical now. What has changed is the need for forces to squeeze every pound of value out of their existing, and now largely self-funded, projects. This can manifest itself in a number of ways: the re-negotiation of existing contracts on renewal; change of supplier at (or before) renewal; or, more radically, the re-negotiation of an existing contract. For those suppliers unwilling to contemplate such a radical idea, beware the end of that contract.
Many organisations are reluctant to change supplier particularly as such a solution may involve immediate capital investment. This resistance is understandable. Three years after a major capital investment, whether NPIA funded or not, investing in another supplier so soon is perceived to reflect poorly on the original decision maker. It appears that a change of device type or data mobilisation supplier is seen as an admission of failure, irrespective of the success of the project.
It is this inertia that must be overcome if improved return on investment (ROI) is to be achieved. Perhaps this is where the NPIA could step in, setting minimum criteria for success. If these are not achieved the aforementioned inertia is effectively removed as the decision making is now based upon objective criteria from the NPIA, giving the project board the flexibility to change their supplier or device because it is the right thing to do.
Engaging with forces
So how should the supplier, with a demonstrably good product, respond to the current climate? The simple answer to this is that having a demonstrably good product is not enough. If we pull together the strands of this discussion so far: a requirement for suppliers to engage with forces individually to understand force specific requirements; the end of central stimulus funding; forces relying on shrinking budgets to provide the same level of visibility and effectiveness in their community; and a requirement to demonstrate high levels of ROI through the life-cycle of the product. We’ve already said that the supplier cannot turn up with an off-the-shelf solution, install and walk away.
The most important thing for the supplier to realise is that it must engage the force in a proper relationship. There have been lots of wasted words about partnerships in the past, with lip service paid to this type of business relationship because it is the current buzz word, or for reasons of political correctness it is seen as the right thing to do. Today, with the economic climate the way it is, a meaningful partnership with a force is becoming a matter of necessity – not only to ensure that the client force is achieving its financial and policing objectives, but to ensure the continuation of the wider ranging data mobilisation project as a whole. A force will only achieve its objectives if the usage statistics for the solution it has deployed are at acceptable levels. The supplier is ultimately responsible for helping the force achieve these levels. Officers will only use a product that is intuitive and makes their job easier. Even the technophobes out there will be confounded by a product that makes their life easier – and this can easily be achieved by adapting demonstrably good products to fit the needs of individual forces.
Making the decision
IT departments, whilst responsible for the implementation of the system, should not be the ones making the buying decision. Operational staff and end-users should be driving the requirements gathering workshops – events the supplier should also attend. The outcomes from these workshops then need to be documented, and interpreted by suppliers to produce prototypes of the solution, giving operational officers an opportunity to feedback on the usability of the solution, such feedback then being used by the supplier to refine its product and present back a refined prototype.
There may be several iterations of this process, but if the force – and the supplier – is to achieve the buy-in of users, users need to be heavily involved in the development process. In terms of the partnership relationship at this stage, both sides need to be flexible, particularly where a fixed price for implementation has been agreed. A price will be quoted against a set of functional requirements, and the supplier needs to honour the development of the prototype to include all of these requirements. If the requirements change, the force has to accept that any additional functionality must be paid for – which brings us back to ensuring the initial requirements gathering is detailed, accurate and complete.
Following completion of the prototype and implementation to the live environment, responsibility for the success of the solution is shared between both partners. This should include the financial risks as well as the functional ones. A supplier will step in and ensure the agreed functionality works as described – that’s what the warranty is for. However, if the project fails to achieve the targeted levels of usage expected, shouldn’t the financial incentives to the supplier reflect the performance of its product?
By sharing objectives across the project – including the most important measure of all, end usage statistics – the supplier is incentivised to support the roll out (and training) model used. By setting up detailed analysis of usage statistics and identifying where weaknesses lie, the supplier can work with the force to identify additional training needs or functional changes and so increase usage. This benefits the force in that ROI is enhanced and the project objectives are more likely to be achieved – with the supplier is rewarded proportionately.
The third stage of the partnership comes with the value for money offered in relation to support payments. The time has passed where a supplier can charge 15-20 per cent of the licence value and provide maybe a dozen days support all year. The supplier needs to take responsibility for the continued development of its product. Support needs to include significant numbers of development days, usability research, user groups, a defined development path for the product, and maybe additional training to continue to improve end-user ratings of the software.
There’s no doubt that this approach is going to erode the profit margins of the supplier, however, what it may just do is seal a partnership with a force whereby renewal of contracts is as good as guaranteed. If the client is suffering, a true partner is going to share in some of that pain in the short-term, for the benefit of the relationship in the long-term. With Sir Hugh Orde, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, on 29 June 2010 warning of falling police numbers as a result of cuts, the significance of the wider data mobilisation project in cost saving is increasing. Now is the time for suppliers to take responsibility for their software and become partners in more than just name alone.