Thames Valley’s County Forensic Manager Will Davies reflects on the journey to ISO/IEC 17020 accreditation success.

The quest for quality is a journey not too dissimilar to those depicted in novels and films where the main protagonist is on the search for the holy grail. The journey is often arduous, with many twists and turns requiring significant resource, intellect and effort to overcome blockages and challenges.

What both have in common is that the journey for each is unique and the end is never finite, but whilst the holy grail remains elusive, Quality on the other hand is very much achievable.

Reflecting upon Thames Valley Police’s (TVP) most recent success with our Aylesbury CSI Unit being recommended for grant of accreditation to ISO/IEC 17020 for volume crime scene examinations, the quest for quality has been nothing short of incredible. Organisational change, staff turnover and the Coronavirus pandemic were just a few of the curve balls thrown our way (just because things weren’t challenging enough!).

Winding back to 2015 which saw the very start of our journey, TVP amongst other forces were like lost sheep, trying to make sense of the alien requirements and concepts for accreditation. Whilst Quality was very much embedded in our Forensic Labs, for CSI it was an entirely different world. As most forces will attest to, our quest for quality required significant cultural understanding and change before we could even contemplate putting the wheels into motion with implementing a quality system. This could only be achieved from having a dedicated team consisting of CSI and Quality staff to navigate and lead the way.

Our project team went into full swing in 2017, setting out what we needed to do for the mammoth task ahead. Fortunately, we were not alone and through the National CSI Expert Network (facilitated by Transforming Forensics), invaluable connections were forged between forces. The network saw forces working together to solve common issues and sharing effective practices and approaches. Through insights from UKAS, academics, and consultants in related disciplines, we had a sense of direction and standardisation began to form.

Continuing our engagement with others and working with our very own Forensic Investigation Unit leads, Quality Team, Technical and Administrative staff, CSI Supervisors and champion CSI practitioners, we were able to transform how we managed our consumables and equipment; design our validation exercises; review and revise SOPs; and structure our training and competency framework. In meeting the requirements of the standard, we also set out what we needed for operational compatibility. It was important to focus on true purpose and to avoid box-ticking exercises. Although requiring more work, we decided to pursue a full scope of methods for volume crime, bringing all six CSI Units on-board the journey not just our Aylesbury CSI Unit undergoing assessment. Significant changes were required in how we stored exhibits and our approach in managing contamination. The Unit itself was subject to reconfiguration, including decommissioning examination rooms and drying cabinets that failed to meet regulatory and legislative requirements. Legacy processes had to be unpicked and decades of accumulated articles and assets curated.

This was a huge undertaking, for each Unit had their own nuances and different ways of working, but the approach ensured standardisation and engagement across the force. That said, facilities could be further improved and this has since been captured under the Forensic Improvement Programme which will see significant investment in TVP Forensics – not just addressing the here and now, but also future proofing our services and capabilities for years to come.

The next milestone in our journey was a UKAS pre-assessment, undertaken in March 2019 which was invaluable in carrying out a final gap analysis and informing what actions needed to be taken to be match fit for Initial Assessment. With our inaugural visit looming in November that same year it was all hands to the pump. We implemented a communication strategy and weekly bulletins to keep staff engaged with the accreditation journey. Despite our best efforts, our steady state was perhaps not as stable as one would like and this was evident in our visit. Whilst we had systems in place, it wasn’t fully embedded at the front end with a general sense of confidence lacking. We were not successful in being recommended for grant. This was a huge blow.

The level of detail and effort required to meet exacting standards cannot be underestimated. It was clear that if we were to succeed, we needed further investment in our endeavours. This led to a change in team dynamics with the appointment of a dedicated Technical Focal Point as well as an uplift of staff in the Training and Quality team. We continued to share and collaborate with forces, supporting our neighbours in their successful assessments and gaining valuable insights from them. We since have the Quality Matters bulletin from the FCN, which brings these insights together for all to gain from, and the Accreditation Support Service, which has been invaluable in preparing staff for the visit. Colleagues in neighbouring forces have been instrumental in supporting us during the last year through the sharing of SOPs, assessment experiences, validation successes, trials and tribulations. Despite the knockdown, our very own staff have dusted themselves off like the infamous treasurer hunter and professor of archaeology, tackling the challenge head on, determined to be successful in our quest. This for me is what Quality is all about – continued improvement and collaboration, striving for success through united purpose.

The last two years have been extraordinary in every sense of the word, and our eventual successful visit this January is testament to the hard work and dedication of our teams in our quest for Quality. Our CSIs in particular have been an absolute credit to their profession. As Technical Manager for CSI, I am immensely proud and feel privileged to have led such a capable and committed team of individuals, who when the chips are down really show what they are made of. With the unprecedented demands of Major Crime during 2021 and the continued challenges of the pandemic, crime truly doesn’t stop and neither does quality, yet they have pulled off the seemingly impossible under the utmost scrutiny and highest of demands. Quality has prevailed without compromise or concession. Hats off and a sincere thank you to all our CSI Unit staff, and our Quality and Technical Teams for their sterling efforts in reaching this epic moment and capturing our very own holy grail.

To quote a colleague from a neighbouring force, “you’ve done the hardest part – the rest is just hard”. This could not be truer in maintaining quality, recognising all that we’ve achieved, yet appreciating the work still required to close out various Improvement Actions, assessing our remaining five sites, and determining our scope for Serious and Major Crime. It can feel never-ending but it’s important to see Quality as a quest for the best and not a race to the end. With a finite pool of dedicated skilled resource to carry out the tasks at hand, continued investment and effort is needed to maintain momentum for success.

In looking back on our journey - there is so much to be proud of. The quality of service we now provide, the reliability of our methods and the training and competence of our CSIs is of the highest standard. We’ve come a long way in the last 5 years.

It’s certainly been worth all the hard work, and for all that’s yet to come in assuring Quality at the core of investigation.