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All systems go behind the CT firewall

With machine reading, AI and the online world rapidly expanding, the demand for IT workers in counter terrorism has never been greater. As part of our CT insight series, an IT staff officer reveals what life is like.
Published - 06/04/2022 By - Chris Smith

The digital world is both the biggest opportunity and the biggest threat in policing.

As a result, the need for staff with specialist IT expertise is huge – and by their very nature they rarely come from the traditional policing route.

Counter Terrorism Policing HQ is hosted by the Metropolitan Police as the lead force, but the Counter Terrorism Policing Network spans the country, with units across all regions, including the West Midlands.

This is where David Harrison, Head of Service Operations for Counter Terrorism, is based. But his isn’t a traditional policing background.

He tells Police Oracle: “I did retail while I was doing my A-levels and worked in a call centre. I regretted not going to university because I got used to the money. Then I joined a high street pharmacy firm doing their IT and then joined Coventry City Council.

“I saw the opportunity to join the MPS in what, at the time, was a very vague advert - but one that drew me in nevertheless. Obviously I must have done something right at the interview, as I was offered a role and joined, very excitedly, in late 2012.”  

The pace and scope of CT work has escalated rapidly since then. The Met are the national lead on counter terrorism; and were integral in establishing a national system to stop all the areas working in silos.

Mr Harrison explains: “It’s grown in scope; from an initial support for 60 sites to several hundred, plus partner agencies. It’s all about communication and collaboration. And ICT is about enabling that to happen.”

What’s it like joining as an outsider, given so little is known about the organisation?

He says: “You have a formal induction so nothing’s left to chance. It can be a bit scary at first – especially if you’re new to policing. You have to sit down and sign the Official Secrets Act. Then you see the big screens with all the situations we are supporting and calls coming in. It’s almost like being on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.”

He adds: “It could be quite overwhelming for some people but don’t forget it’s still ICT and you’ll be in a good environment and we believe in you. You have to ask yourself ‘why are we here and what are we trying to do?’ It’s also about understanding how we fit in at Counter Terrorism Police Headquarters.”

But despite the specialist nature of the organisation, there are similarities with private sector firms.

Mr Harrison says: “It’s not that different to most other places; we have an HR department, a Business Change department and we’re the IT department.

“It’s a 24-7 service operation. From a staff point of view, we’re there to enable them to do their job effectively. We emphasise to them that we get it. My job as Head of Service Operations is to lead on support activity for IT – including surveillance and intelligence – and making sure the systems are running properly.”

But what’s different? An incident creates demand for rapid response.

“When there’s an incident we bring in the first line support, there can be a lot of pressure.”

“It’s not about a comfort zone. This role will shift you firmly out of it, which is a good thing if you genuinely want to develop, progress and push yourself further than you think is possible.”

Some organisations attract a type of person or require a particular skillset. Having met dozens of CT officers, he’s spotted a trait they all have.

He says: “Whether it’s my team or in the rest of the organisation, the one thing I’ve noticed is people need to not necessarily take things at face value.”

CT policing is currently running a national recruitment campaign to get both officers and staff in the 43 forces to consider joining. For years, the perception has been is that the jobs are mainly for people with links or experience to the Armed Forces or specialist skills gained in top universities.

And another perception is that people in staff roles won’t be considered. That’s no longer true, Mr Harrison says.

“We haven’t really got stereotypes. It depends on the role – and there are multiple disciplines. The Service Desk is the place where you start your career in IT. At the moment it’s Generation Z people who are new to the workforce that have those roles – but having said that, we’ve just taken on someone who’s been working in HR for 10 years. We’re pretty much all of us from the Midlands – but that’s not a strict rule.”

As a staff-side officer who’s from outside policing, what’s his perspective?

“I like to think that the term ‘police’ is not just officers; they’re part of the policing family. And you meet people from across the country; whether it’s Police Scotland or Devon and Cornwall Police. People are lovely.”

And what about the role of a frontline CT officer, having seen it first-hand?

He says: “I think it’s vital and I think the work the officers do is remarkable. The danger some put themselves in sometimes – I think they are incredible men and women.”

A central message of the campaign – and CT Chief Matt Jukes – is that diversity is vital.

Mr Harrison explains what it means in reality: “We’re trying to encourage more people to join, whatever their background. Everything we do is role-dependent. We’ve now got the most female staff than we’ve ever had. I have three female colleagues; two are about to go on maternity leave – and they are coming back. They will be kept up to date while they are off and the Met is offering a lot of support with the Met Baby scheme – all the entitlements are laid out for you.”

Lockdown brought down the barriers for the regular forces that had resisted – on central government advice – the idea of working from home. What was the impact on CT policing?

“The pandemic has changed everything. Before, because the systems we work with are highly sensitive, we were all in the office. We didn’t look at people and what they actually did,” he says.

“So we’ve remodelled that. Some of the teams have to work in the office just because of the nature of the job. You can’t work with sensitive security information from homes. But some roles have been able to do it.”

Part of the rationale is the need to attract and retain skilled staff: “We’re being more realistic. We’re up against other organisations out there who can offer remote working so we’re looking at how we can compete with that. We’ve got a five-year aspiration to see if more can be done from home. It’s going to be interesting.”

There’s also the issue of personal motivation. How do you measure job satisfaction when part of the job is preventing things from happening and you can’t talk deeply about your work outside of the office?

Mr Harrison says: “It’s always good when you can identify business results. But you don’t really see the value of what you’re doing until you step back for a moment and see the big picture.

“There’s an intrinsic reward. I never really saw myself as being a police officer but working for the police has really developed me. I’ve loved it; it’s been the making of me.”

The two questions people thinking about transferring will ask are what is the organisation actually like and what are the people like who make it work?

He says: “We did an interesting staff survey over Christmas and the most positive thing that came up was the people. It’s really important. You will not work for a shareholder, you will work for your communities. The mind-set is vastly different to working in the private sector.”

And the person skills?

“You’ve got to be quite resilient – especially when there’s a challenging job on and the chips are down and you need to get things working for people. But we all get on very well; you’re able to have a bit of fun with your work. What I like about the people around me is that they’re all in it for the right reasons.”

He adds: “There’s a culture that we’re trying to foster and build. We’re never going to get to perfection. There will be times when people retreat and when they do it’s saying ‘there’s a bigger purpose and we rely on each other’.

“We don’t tend to get jumped up people it’s very much like a family and very much inclusive. You’re enabled – they value people.”

Once in, what opportunities are there?

He says: “I’ve had a very good career. I’ve recently been promoted into my current role. I’m looking forward to the next few years: there’s more things that technology can enable you to do.

“And I finally got that degree. My demonstrable career experience with the MPS enabled me to jump to post-graduate level education and following three and a half years, in November 2021 I was honoured to graduate with a Master of Arts (MA) with Merit from Coventry University in Managing and Leading People.”

The location in the centre of England offers an alternative springboard to London – without the cost of house prices.

What’s his advice to potential applicants?

“If you don’t fancy being a police officer but think you have something to offer, with the right mind set you can just go out and do whatever you want to do. This organisation will open doors in your career. Whether through security clearance, training, or just gaining experience to further yourself,” he says.

“We wouldn’t be prejudicial; if you put in the effort and send in either an application or a CV, we’d definitely want to speak to you.”

And for those who doubt they might not be able to match the super-skilled elite, the top IT lead reveals Teams meetings continue to expose a flaw in capability two years after lockdown.

He says: “There’s still people where you have to say ‘you’re on mute…’”

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