Can policing be bought and sold?

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Can policing be bought and sold?

In the current climate of austerity and cuts to budgets, police forces are being asked to do more with less and to engage more with the private sector to outsource activities that might otherwise be undertaken in-house. A larger market for the buying and selling of policing services is emerging, but before this is too hastily embraced it may be worth taking a moment to address some questions such as: what can and should be outsourced and how can value for money be ensured while upholding the standards the public expects?

One of the biggest barriers to working in partnership with private enterprise is the culture clash between the public and private sector. Whether perceived or real, essentially it all boils down to notions of public good’ versus private profit’. Research by Professor Martin Gill shows that some officers doubt their private sector counterpart’s ability to do the job or that they are any more likely to provide value for money. For their part, the private sector perceive the police to be customers from hell’ when it comes to procurement or drawing up sound business contracts. There is still clearly much bridge building to be done.

If outsourcing is inevitable, how can one ensure that collaboration is successful and constructive? Firstly, there needs to be greater clarity over what should and what should not be outsourced. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. It will be important to ensure that outsourcing doesn’t compromise public trust and confidence. A division of policing tasks into those needing powers of enforcement (and by default discretion and accountability) and those that do not is probably more helpful than categorisation by function. So, for example, police work that needs a warrant, such as the deployment of officers, emergency response and the gathering of intelligence should probably, on this basis, not be outsourced.

But although trust in the public sector is higher than the commercial sector, the private sector has the edge in terms of customer satisfaction. Simplifying procurement (which is expensive and time-consuming) and getting contracts right could be the next step in improving partnership working. Service contracts need not be restricted to dry business arrangements but could include wider provisions that allow different types of employment practice, such as allowing the force to train contracted employees.

Ultimately wider work is needed to improve collaboration between the police and the private sector. It is needed especially around clarifying the kinds and levels of responsibility the private sector might assume. This would provide a greater understanding of the implications of privatising certain aspects of policing, securing appropriate regulation, relaxing some of the more complicated procurement processes to allow greater flexibility in the provision of services and, perhaps most importantly, finding out what the public wants from the police (and only the police) and why.

Although money is the driver for outsourcing it should not dictate whether services are surrendered to the private sector. This must be a carefully guided, value-driven process and for this reason Home Office guidance is keenly awaited.

This blog entry first appeared in Policing Today.