Talk of cuts in public services has become endemic. Politicians, senior managers, civil servants, journalists and even academics are all busy discussing how best to make efficiency savings, increase productivity and deliver better value for money. The private sector will expand as the public sector shrinks. We are entering new territory.
The Audit Commission, together with HMIC, has just published a report entitled ‘Sustaining value for money in the police service’. Although the title is somewhat presumptuous – there is, as the report itself states, no evidence that high spending is delivering improved productivity – it usefully suggests that savings can be made ‘by linking policing priorities to resource management’, but this surely begs the question why on earth wasn’t this done before? As Richard Lambert, Director General of the CBI said in the Police Foundation’s John Harris Memorial Lecture last year, if you consistently throw money at a problem, you never need to demonstrate value for money. And the police service can hardly complain that it hasn’t had money thrown at it over the last two decades.
The Audit Commission/HMIC report fails to state the obvious, which is that there must be considerable scope for savings simply through cutting out all the extraneous activities the service has collected or been dumped with over the years. Perhaps it’s time to put a stop to mission drift, to return to core functions, to resist the temptation to do everything and be everywhere, to learn to say ‘no’ and not always to say ‘yes’, to be a ‘can’t do’ service and not always a (very exploitable) ‘can do’ one.
In early September, the Police Foundation will be holding its first Annual Conference. The theme, like so many conferences these days, is about the effective delivery of public services in a period of austerity. But as well as identifying the challenges, it will also explore the opportunities. Radical reforms which have been needed for some time may now be easier to achieve, not least force collaboration. Creating space for innovation is difficult at the best of times, but more so when resources are being squeezed. What are other public services or indeeded other countries faced with the same problems doing? Putting forward innovative strategies and ideas for improving efficiency and productivity are all very well, but how will they be achieved while simultaneously resourcing an unprecedented security operation – the Olympic Games?
In the health sector, the government’s new proposals will deliver greater private sector involvement at GPs take on the commissioning of health services and outsourcing companies take over much of the back office functions in GP surgeries. This has led to a heated discussion about who will benefit – shareholders or taxpayers, professionals or clients – and whether ‘the privatisation of the health service’ must inevitably lead to conflicts of interest and lower quality services being delivered by poorly trained, lower paid and smaller workforces. The Chief Executive of Capita said recently that he would be deeply disappointed if its take from the outsourcing of government services doesn’t double in the next five years. Does this matter? How will this affect the ordinary man-in-the-street? The same ethical discussion, which will be addressed at the Annual Conference, needs to be embraced by the policing sector. What will a leaner, smaller, police force look like? What should it no longer do and how might its values change? It is important, in the rush to make cuts, not to lose sight of the consequences they may have for ordinary human beings, not just for balancing the books.