Professor Paul Taylor is in the second year of his tenure as Chief Scientific Adviser for the National Police Chiefs’ Council. He spoke to me at this year’s Police Digital Summit in Brighton about the extensive work going on across the country to improve trust and confidence in policing through innovative use of science and technology.
During his speech to delegates, he described science and technology innovation as ‘absolutely rife’ across policing. In one year, 13 force led initiatives that include robot process automation, the creation of an Action Fraud chat bot and dark web investigations resulted in the release of 350,000 hours of capacity that equates to £8.2m in savings. This is impressive and even more so when he goes on to notethat if these initiatives were scaled up nationally ‘we might expect c.15m hours and £352m in costs saved.’
Paul is the first to hold the post of Chief Scientific Adviser for policing, but the role exists across government departments to provide an academic, independent view on policy. We talk about his work, and I am alarmed when he says very little is about science and technology. He explains,
“Science and technology is very mature, it can deliver but what we need to get right is the governance, the systems, the skills and the underlying foundations.”
I expected Artificial Intelligence (AI) to be a big topic at the summit but found it wasn’t the case and Paul was unsurprised, adding “The reality is that most of the day job is far away from AI.” He sees challenges and opportunities from AI, how it can revolutionise how to engage with the public, but the biggest challenge is its environmental impact. By this he means the computing power to make AI work and its conflict with a push for net zero. “We want safe AI but also sustainable AI.” I suggest we call it green AI but question if government departments will work together to achieve what could be conflicting public safety and green policy goals.
A focus on the end user
At the heart of much of his work is problem solving. Paul says, “The most important person in the innovation journey is the end user. We’ve put lots of proxy users in the way and it’s a real challenge to remove those.” By this he means that innovation needs to be alive to the result and not get obscured and muddled along the way by people and perhaps bureaucracy. He refers to co-design but really, he says it is about listening.
The reality is that not every idea or innovation in every force will be listened to in a way that leads to a national adoption. There is repetition and overlap. Paul says that in the last round of bids for the STAR funding round, three forces put forward the same idea and there were four bids for things that already existed.
The Police STAR Fund is an annual innovation call run by Paul’s office to stimulate local innovation and encourage collaboration to solve science and technology problems in policing. It is about seeding local initiatives with the intention that some will fail, says Paul. Anyone can apply to the £3m pot with bids ranging from £20k to £500k.
He says that STAR funding is a chance to test things out and allow initial seeds to bloom. The latest round of funding closed for submissions in November and since taking over running the fund in 2021, Paul’s office has supported 53 projects across 24 forces, five PCC offices and other police related organisations.
To help alleviate the problem of duplication and overlap, the role of a Research and Innovation Lead has been introduced into forces. The person who has this role may be as high as ACC level or somewhere else within forces, and together they form a network that meets virtually and face to face to share ideas, discuss problems and align thoughts to get the most out of the funding rounds like STAR when they come along. Research and Innovation Leads also highlight larger investment opportunities that require multi-million-pound funding.
He’s not the only one involved in technology innovation, as the Home Office run Accelerated Capability Environment (ACE) showed through examples in its recent annual report of how policing is using agile methods to kickstart innovation without getting bogged down in bureaucracy. He told me that he thinks ACE is a ‘fantastic partner’ but it is focused on digital, which accounts for only 35 per cent of his time.
With all this work going on, I wonder if there is a danger of drowning in innovation and not actually making a tangible difference on the ground. He says there is a robust prioritisation process to create a portfolio of strategic innovation that is balanced, and where it is not, at least ‘to be comfortable with the imbalance.’ He also encourages people to quit things that don’t work, which he says policing finds hard to do. He recognises it’s not always that simple, adding, “It is challenging to strategically quit.”
Policing Productivity Review
This leads us to talk about the productivity review of policing that was commissioned by the Home Secretary in August 2022 (and published in late November). He said, “I don’t envisage the Home Secretary disagreeing with the recommendations.” The challenge, he cautions, is achieving them within what’s left of this parliament; they will require hard choices to be made.
So where does trust and confidence sit in this discussion? Pete O’Doherty talked about it in our conversation about cyber and Paul says it applies ‘hugely’ in the science and technology space.
He says the public expects policing to offer the same level of service that they receive from the private sector – and the Citizen’s Portal is going some way to do that by allowing better information for victims of crime to know what the police is doing. He also talks about live facial recognition and the ethical considerations that must be addressed to gain confidence from the public. The Policing Minister spoke at the same conference and made a huge push for its roll out across forces.
I ask him if he’s optimistic about the future of innovation in policing. He says a very firm yes. “To put this into context, the Prime Minister has said that innovation is the growth story for the country. From the top down we’ve got a country that is growing and prospering from science and technology. My role is to make sure policing plays its part.”