A lengthy report from think tank Reform has proposed a change in the law that would allow for the firing of police officers who are not computer literate. But its recommendations are being circulated without the wider context of what the think tank stands for – with a history of pushing for cuts to public services.
The central points of Reform's report, ‘Bobbies on the net: a police workforce for the digital age', are structural change and investment in new technologies. In short, that translates to firing staff and purchasing new equipment.
Reform says that "current inability to make officers redundant hamstrings force leaders" and goes on to say: "Senior managers, officers and staff argued that the ability to fire officers without the necessary skills would allow chiefs to get the skill base to meet digital demand and shift culture."
Another recommendation is establishing a police digital capital grant of £450 million a year. This would be used to invest in new technologies such as more advanced body-worn cameras and would be funded by wider cuts across government.
Reform references one of its own reports to fund this – "Work in progress: Towards a leaner, smarter public-sector workforce" – which suggested using automation to cut as many as 250,000 staff from public sector roles. These cuts, it said, would create savings in the billions.
Reform is transparent about its donors, many of them controversial businesses that have won lucrative contracts from privatisation in the public sector, among them Serco, G4S, and Prospects Services.
The report also recommends the creation of a volunteer cyber security police force from the IT sector, plus a new digital academy that should graduate 1,700 employees each year, which could be achieved through secondments. Reform recommends that these are set up through external private sector partners and universities.
The think tank has broadly supported an agenda of cuts, and in 2010 recommended as much as £20 billion in cuts to the NHS funded through lowering pay and sacking staff, plus limiting free treatments.
Co-author Alexander Hitchcock told the Financial Times: "UK police forces will struggle to address rising cyber crime if they do not learn from other countries. Countries like the US, Estonia and Netherlands are fast developing new techniques."
It's not a secret that public sector organisations have often lagged behind on digital programmes, although this has slowly changed over recent years at both the local and central government levels. But Reform's niche is in dressing cuts to the public sector in the language of digital.
Cyber security should run horizontally across every organisation, whether public or private, and its fundamental importance has been raised into the public consciousness by major disasters such as the outbreak of the WannaCry ransomware.
But IT professionals disagree with Reform's approach.
Kaspersky Lab's principle security researcher David Emm said: "The police, like any organisation, need a diverse range of skills; and it may be that not all roles require technical knowledge and IT acumen.
"The focus for police forces, like any other organisation, should be on ongoing education and upskilling existing staff. Many industries are suffering from a lack of technology skills, and this can only be remedied by increasing internal awareness and by encouraging young people with a passion for cybersecurity to use their skills for the greater good."
Managing director for digital at training provider AVADO, Mark O'Donoghue, said the report is "missing the point".
"For an organisation to be truly digital first, the culture and mindset of staff has to change, and it's important this shift comes from the very top," O'Donoghue said. "The temptation is to simply appoint a head of cyber security but the best results come when change is being led by the whole leadership team and built into everything a business does."
And a spokesperson for the Public and Commercial Services union, which represents Metropolitan Police staff and PCSOs in the met, added: "Reform have always been cheerleaders for austerity so every one of their proposals should be measured against that stick.
"If Met officers or staff lack IT skills that's the fault of the organisation, not individuals, so should be addressed as a training and development issue not an opportunity for yet more cuts."
The fact is unemployment for cyber security roles is virtually nonexistent: there's a deep skills gap that has led to a struggle in recruiting.
Reform does propose secondments to a new digital academy to train police officers in security skills - but the problem can't be cut away.
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