Social justice: how the police can embrace online channels of citizen communication
PublicTechnology talks to Salesforce about why police forces need to adopt new omnichannel capabilities, offer the public channel choice and the benefits of doing so
For all the digital transformation that has taken place across the public sector in the last 10 years, law enforcement has seemed to lag somewhat behind other areas.
Central Whitehall departments – supported by the Government Digital Service – have digitised huge swathes of their interactions with citizens. Local councils now routinely collect taxes and handle public enquiries online. Patients, meanwhile, can manage their medical information, routine and 111 appointments, and prescriptions through the NHS app.
The long arm of the law, however, has often struggled to reach that far into the digital world.
These problems were acknowledged in a 10-year digital strategy published last year by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and co-written by the Police Digital Service and the National Police Technology Council.
“We either improve how we harness digital opportunities from existing and emerging technologies, or we are at risk of becoming overwhelmed by the demand they create and lose the chance to enhance and modernise our policing services,” the strategy says.
Steps are afoot – through both practical measures and legislation – to ensure this demand is met.
In 2019, government committed £7m of funding to ensure that all of the 43 police forces in England and Wales operate a dedicated cybercrime unit.
This backing came a year after the NPCC set out on its programme to create the Single Online Home – a nationwide digital platform to allow all constabularies to offer “the public a consistent way of engaging with their local force and accessing police services online”.
Progress has been made since then, with about two thirds – 27 – of all the 43 regional forces, as well as the British Transport Police, having migrated to the SOH platform. Between them, these forces serve 61% of the population.
Which, of course, still leaves a third of all forces that are not yet on the platform.
The drive to offer these services is fuelled, in large part, by public demand; many citizens expect to be able to report crime and make enquiries of their local force via the same channels through which they interact with other public- and private-sector entities.
The weekly shop is an example of staple of everyday life that has, for many, been transformed in recent years, with one in three households now buying online from one or more supermarkets each month. Similarly, taxes – both those paid to central and local government bodies – is now routinely done on the web.
The demand for online police services created by these trends will only grow as the proportion of crime committed in cyberspace also continues to rise.
On top of which, the European Electronic Communications Code will also require forces to offer citizens the online communications channels that they expect.
The SOH is a good start in this regard, providing web form templates for the reporting of crimes or other incidents. But it does not cover the social channels that many now expect to serve as part of a force’s online front desk.
The National Police Chiefs Council has developed a “Target Operating Model” outlining how police forces should aspire to use social media, which is supported by a framework of accredited suppliers that forces can use to help deliver their requirements.
The recently launched vehicle – which features providers Orlo and Salesforce, alongside its channel partner Softcat – is not only available to police, but to all emergency services and local authorities. The intention is that buyers can take advantage not only of social media tools such as content libraries, schedule management, and analytics programs, but also auditing services that allow for digital evidence to be transferred in a compliant and tamper-proof manner.
The providers featured on the framework will assist in addressing “a mismatch of expectations between what the public expects and what the police provide”, identified in a 2018 report from Open University professor Harith Alani examining the police’s use of social media.
“Because the public is exposed to companies and organisations that use social media 24/7 as a communication channel, users tend to expect the same behaviour from the police,” he writes. “However, not only social media is not used for official reporting and communication but also, police social media accounts are not active 24/7.”
Salesforce aims to provide forces with a social media listening capability – in adherence to the Target Operating Model – that is scalable to cater for additional capabilities.
Steve Norris, public safety market director at Salesforce UK and a member of industry body techUK’s Police Interoperability Working Group, says that “a lot of police forces are still on step one” in their use of social platforms.
“This is where they use social media to broadcast a one-size-fits-all message around to their local communities,” he adds. “What the Target Operating Model is looking to do is to provide a guideline that enables police forces to transform their use of social media, consistently engage different demographics in two-way interactions, and provide public confidence that incidents reported on social media can be actioned accordingly.”
According to Norris, the biggest concern many forces have about the possibility of adopting such a model is the additional demands it will place on their resources – particularly when even offering web forms as a means of reporting crime may be a recent addition to their workload.
Even for forces that have an active online presence which they are actively looking to expand, there is the significant challenge of how new channels for reporting would work alongside existing platforms – which may be old, inflexible and unable to share data in real-time.
Norris says that Salesforce offers its police customers the opportunity to “incrementally change”.
This journey typically begins with a conversation to understand a force’s existing channel management model and its plans to transform over the coming years.
He adds: “Are they prepared to take the next step on that continuum, and do they have the tools to manage citizen expectation within the next generation of users? Because generation Z and Y don't communicate via voice – they do almost everything digitally. Police forces are aware of the need to change.”
The cloud vendor’s platform can scan tweets, or Facebook or Instagram posts directed to a force’s social account to detect keywords that can be specified by the force in question – that might indicate an incident’s severity or be of interest to the force. This could include ‘knife’ or ‘gun’, for example.
Messages containing the specified keywords or phrases will then be flagged as urgent, automatically created into a case, and then directed via skills-based routing to a contact-centre agent to assess using the intelligence scoring that is provided with the case and the THRIVE methodology, which considers: threat; harm; risk; investigation opportunities; vulnerability of the victim; and engagement required.
“You can also use a customisable sentiment engine to proactively verify sentiment within a tweet or an Instagram or Facebook post,” Norris says. “So, you can actually score and consider the sentiment behind posts to support a case assessment, and quickly understand priorities and appropriate action.”
Once posts have been pulled through to an agent’s console, other relevant information will also be highlighted including any previous interactions with the user in question and reports they have made, showing account details if they are a registered account user. This can help identify patterns and ascertain when people are in an abusive or dangerous environment.
The ultimate goal is to extend this functionality into a platform, such as that offered by Salesforce, that allows crime to be managed through a single front end and brings together data from all means of reporting – including online, social media, telephone, or reports added manually.
“The final step is actually making social media part of the fabric of what police do, as part of that omnichannel experience they want to offer,” Norris says “And what comes with that is the self-service element as well; if they can help citizens serve themselves, they're taking demand away from themselves and enabling the citizen to find quick answers… they can actually become better equipped to serve citizens, as well as relieving themselves of demand in their contact centre.”
While they may not have led the way in public sector digitisation, forces are now embarking on a reform agenda at a time when the technology that is now available offers the chance to deliver truly transformative change for both officers and citizens.
"The final step is actually making social media part of the fabric of what police do, as part of that omnichannel experience they want to offer,” Norris says “And what comes with that is the self-service element as well."
Steve Norris, Salesforce
Within a few years, the arms of the law could be long enough to stretch around a system that allows crimes to be reported in whichever way is easiest for the person concerned, and then managed seamlessly – with essential data available to front-line officers when they most need it.
An omnichannel environment – a mainstay of all customer-service industries for many years – allows forces to better engage with the public, which has especial importance in a country where law enforcement was founded on the Peelian principles of policing by consent.
But, while most forms of online interaction may be second nature to many citizens and businesses, they may be new ground for some forces. This is where the police will require support from expert suppliers that can enable the delivery of technology in a phased and tailored way.
Because, as Norris points out, “transformation is an easy thing to say – but a very different thing to deliver”.
He adds: “The key thing for us is that we see a continuum of engagement. Social media is a foundational position for a police force and Salesforce to work together to deliver the target operating model. From there onwards it is about growing this capability with forces, via a digital pathway to help them to establish and manage an omnichannel public experience, as well as focus on back-office and automation workload, to help make the force more productive, save money, and support them to become more operationally efficient.”
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