Correctional facility: Victoria Police’s Vanderheide


Michael Vanderheide might have just clocked up six months under his belt as Victoria Police’s chief information officer and executive director of Infrastructure, but when he pulls into the force’s car park at its head office in Melbourne each morning, he still feels a bit new.

“Surrounded by police cars, you immediately slow down,” the former ACT public servant laughs.

And yet speaking with Vanderheide this week in one of his first interviews since taking on the role of reforming Victoria Police’s troubled technology function, it’s clear the CIO has made a substantial amount of progress in that time. He hasn’t been lost and confused in the tough world of state policing.

Anyone in Australia’s technology sector would have acknowledged Vanderheide had a job of work ahead of him when he took the position late last year.

His predecessor, chief information officer Valda Berzins, resigned from her post in November 2008, just as an investigation was kicking off into Victoria Police’s IT department. 12 months later, the state’s Ombudsman found the department under Berzins had a “disregard for proper procurement and contract management”. Some contracts never went to tender, and budgets were skyrocketing.

The ombudsman also published an embarassing list of hospitality and entertainment from vendors like IBM accepted by Berzins and her deputy John Brown. In short, the whole thing was a mess.

After Berzins’ departure, a board of management was appointed to run Victoria Police’s IT function, and eventually Vanderheide — who had been leading the ACT’s shared services department InTACT — was brought in to right the wrongs.

“There were a whole lot of issues,” Vanderheide acknowledges. His role also sees him take responsibility for other areas of police infrastructure such as its evidence store and some aspects of police stations themselves — but he admits the immediate focus has been, and “probably will be for a little while” on the IT side of the fence.

And yet much has been done since the public servant stepped on board.

Vanderheide says his first moves in the role involved him spending time getting his head around how the organisation works — especially the realities of operational policing in the field.

“I’ve seen things I never intended to see,” he says, of some of his trips out with police. He describes what the force does as “awfully important work” to the Victorian community — and work that never stops, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — “the expectations are high”.

After that harsh education and getting his head around the people, systems, applications and general environment of the technology function within Victoria Police — known as Business Information Technology Services (BITS), he has taken a two-pronged approach to improving it.

Firstly, he says, it’s important that BITS regains credibility within the force as a whole. “I think that underlies everything we’re doing at the moment — building credibility, both with customers inside and colleagues in other government departments, and to some extent with the community,” he says. To kickstart the process, Vanderheide has initiated projects to address pain points within the organisation.

For example, it may surprise some to learn that Victorian police have not been able to access their email outside of police stations. So, after putting in place some security controls, Vanderheide has set up a pilot project where some staff can access their email externally through Outlook Web Access.

“They really are small things,” he says — but they’re things that are important to the users.

And Vanderheide has also taken some tough decisions. For example, in late March Victoria Police announced it had suspended its LINK project — which aims to replace its ancient 17-year-old criminal history and crime reporting database, LEAP — used by almost all of the force’s frontline police.

The technology was to be rolled out progressively this year, but Vanderheide says although the project had been underway for several years, it had encountered some significant issues. As a result, his team has taken about six months out to re-think the project from start to finish. “We’ve spotted a problem — we’re not going to blindly charge ahead,” he said.

The delay will not result in a different core software platform being used — LINK will use software from Canadian vendor Niche Technology, which is also used by other policing agencies around the globe. But Vanderheide says the re-think is more around how the software integrates with the 26 or so applications that sit outside the core.

Some functionality that those applications currently offer is actually replicated by Niche’s native functions, meaning there is a chance that software simplification could take place. And Vanderheide wants to get Victoria Police’s implementation right before the new technology starts being rolled out to police who rely on things working just right.

These are the sorts of changes that are going on in BITS that police on the street will notice most. But there are much wider projects and upgrades going on behind the scenes that are just as important in the long term.

For example, Victoria Police has recently set up a disaster recovery site — now operational. And Vanderheide has restructured the IT department along the lines of personal accountability — something that new Victoria Police chief commissioner Simon Overland is also stressing in the force.

When Vanderheide started, he says, he used to receive messages in his inbox, and it wasn’t clear whose responsibility in the department it actually was to resolve the issue concerned. After a while, he realised it wasn’t just him — there really was a problem with lines of accountability. So he took action. “It’s gone back to a relatively traditional IT structure,” he says. “Projects and applications, an operations centre a separate group for radio and telecommunications.” And staff have reacted positively.

A new SAP-based payroll system went live some three weeks ago, with the implementation going “smoothly, compared to some of the others I’ve seen,” says Vanderheide. A new evidence, property and laboratories system is going live in the next few months, and a new facial identification system, iFace, is also on the way.

Integration is also being planned between Victoria Police and regional emergency services it works with.

Of course, some of Vanderheide’s most sensitive work has been helping to bring his department’s procurement processes to an acceptable standard. “It’s certainly something I’m paying a lot of attention to,” he says.

However, he notes that many of the problems detailed in the Ombudsman’s report were already in the process of being addressed by the time he stepped on board — because Victoria Police obviously knew about them while they were still being investigated: “The organisation was well and truly focused on them.”

There appears to have been minimal fallout for Victoria Police’s key IT suppliers — Fujitsu and IBM — from the debacle, with Vanderheide noting the pair would continue to play a significant role with the force. But there will also be a fair degree of change ahead as much of Victoria Police’s IT infrastructure is rolled in to be supported by the state’s shared services agency CenITex.

Victoria Police isn’t on CenITex’s schedule to be rolled in for another year or so, with Vandeheide saying there were “big things” to do before the move would happen. However, he’s broadly positive about the engagement and says Victoria Police will “make it work”. “It’s a government decision, but also a desirable decision,” he says.

The mix of work being provided by Fujitsu, IBM and CenITex is still being decided, with a discussion ongoing about whether the shared services agency will take over administration of the vendors’ contracts, and what proportion of their existing work it will perform.

If you were to characterise where Vanderheide is at the moment in terms of his career at Victoria Police, it’s clear things have settled down. There are still a number of urgent projects going on within the department — and the disastrous situation that occurred during Berzins’ tenure will remain in the organisation’s collective history for some time. But Vanderheide himself has achieved enough in a short time to start to look beyond the confines of his desk.

He says in the past few weeks he’s held meetings with IT chiefs from other police forces — such as the Australian Federal Police and SA Police — and he’d also like to build his networks with others and even other government departments. “My experience of policing is that it sometimes does operate independently,” he says. “That’s fine — but I would like to be buiding bridges.”

The CIO’s new life in Melbourne is also opening up — with his wife he’s signed up for a beach exercise boot camp three morning a week — “crawling through the sand”. “I love it,” he says of his new city. “Melbourne’s great — it’s vibrant and exciting. Canberra was great — a good place to bring up our kids, and you can never take the harbour away from Sydney. But Melbourne’s an easy place to live — people are warm and friendly.”

But one gets the feeling that Vanderheide’s mind is never far from his work. When asked about what new technologies he’s excited about, he say it’s more about Victoria Police fixing and better using what it already has.

“Getting the core stable and functioning,” he says.

Image credit: Dr. Keats, Creative Commons