iPads for PCs
A row has broken out in Staffordshire between the Labour and Conservative candidates to be the county's Police and Crime Commissioner. Thank goodness. After all, while the concept of elected representatives overseeing the local priorities and practices of our police forces is entirely sound, the reality has been - shall we say - a little lacklustre. A good old barney between candidates is exactly what is needed to start galvanising these elections and generating a bit of excitement among the electorate.
But leaving aside the importance of making this fight matter to the people who'll judge it - which of the candidates is actually right? Matthew Ellis, the Conservative candidate, wants to equip Staffordshire bobbies with iPads on their beat - to facilitate their access to data, make it easier to check whether folk are telling them the truth on the street and to avoid unnecessary paperwork. His opponent, Joy Garner has dismissed his plan as 'dangerously out of touch' and unaffordable.
In this row, and not for any particular partisan reason, I'm afraid I have to come down squarely in Mr. Ellis' corner. Demos' report The Data Dividend - which looked at how the public sector can make the most of big data - made the case for frontline public servants to be equipped with smart devices. Why? Because if we want to cut bureaucracy and paperwork in the long-term (without losing the benefits that greater recording and understanding of process can bring) we need the public sector to embrace the potential and the possibilities of new technology.
By using an iPad an officer can check whether individuals have any outstanding behaviour orders, past convictions or suspicions against their name without having to either use up the time of a colleague back at the station or - worse - take potentially innocent people off the streets to make sure.
iPads, connected to police databases and used well by the officers they're handed to, can slim down the time and the manpower involved in everyday policing whilst maintaining standards. Joy Garner is obviously right that, in the short-term, this would cost money. In the longer term, though, it has the potential to free up resources and personnel to do the job the public wants them to do. Technology isn't a pointless distraction from the vocations of public service - it's a vital tool in making those vocations work in the modern age.