Telling the story on policing cuts – the importance of a cohesive narrative

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Related Themes: Police legitimacy, Resources

Telling the story on policing cuts – the importance of a cohesive narrative

Police forces in England and Wales are continually trying to raise political and public consciousness of the scale and impact of government cuts to policing. At times as with the speech by Steve White at the Police Federation’s annual conference in May this has had only limited success.

While the Federation’s argument has lacked a robust evidential platform to back-up their rhetoric, and on occasions has appeared to amount to little more than lashing out at their ministerial tormentors, it may actually be the message that is at fault. Adopting a more unified narrative could assist the Federation’s plight and that of the police service in general, and move the debate beyond the rhetorical.

An approach to communications that is gaining widespread support within a number of organisations is Framing Analysis’, the principles of which are drawn from learning in the social and cognitive sciences. Changing the way issues are framed can help shift the discourse, improve understanding, change attitudes and, ultimately, boost support for ideas and solutions.

Solely focusing on the problem’ can have limited impact particularly when the message is narrowly defined and overtly negative. Organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) have recognised this. Traditional communications campaigns that highlight the plight of children and young people through the use of doleful images have value, but are one-dimensional. Through reframing’, the NSPCC’s aim has been to develop and deliver a single, evidence-based narrative about child abuse and neglect shared across the whole organisation that focuses on causes, consequences and solutions. Importantly, there is further recognition by the NSPCC that this narrative needs to be communicated in such a way that it resonates with as wide an audience as possible. The results achieved so far appear promising.

Reframing has a strong heuristic focus that can help foster a more holistic response. However, police forces struggle to speak with a single, cohesive voice on the issue of funding and cuts, given that they occupy a heterogeneous landscape of 43 individual dominions, each with their own local case to champion. Over the last few days we have seen quite different reactions to the recent policing funding formula announcement and looming spending review, ranging from the comparatively optimistic in West Midlands to decidedly downcast in Lancashire, suggesting that some forces will inevitably have to shout louder about cuts and impact than others and that any consensus remains elusive. Are those policing bodies with a national perspective better placed to lobby government and communicate a cohesive, empirical account of the debate? The National Police Chiefs’ Council advocating systemic reimagining’ of policing in response to austerity does, philosophically at least, seem to chime with the Police Superintendents’ Association and Police Federation’s accord of the need for a more radical rethink of public service delivery. However, it is still far from clear if their messages are consistently received.

What is evident from the NSPCC example is that it is only once the voice is collective, the story both in terms of impact and consequences homogenous and evidentially robust, and recognition of the need to be more solution-minded enhanced, that the ability to influence becomes greater. The police service needs to move beyond a cuts have consequences‘ rhetoric, to a more tangible and potentially powerful thesis that better articulates to politicians but also the public the myriad significant pressures on policing generated by austerity and other changing-world’ trends, while also demonstrating a readiness to formulate cohesive responses to these challenges.

There also needs to be a greater appreciation that public understanding of the impact of cuts on policing is a swamp’ a cacophony of preconception, disunity and variance in comprehension that is further complicated by similar messages emanating from other parts of the public sector. A particular risk for the police is that as cuts take effect, individual forces will be held responsible for the consequences.

Left unchallenged, citizen disconnect between government actions at the macro level and the resulting impact on policing at the micro level clearly does the police no favours. The aim is not simply to deflect blame for policing deficiencies arising from budget cuts back to Whitehall; rather it is to redress the balance of the debate and stimulate public cognizance of cause and effect. Channelling a cogent and cohesive narrative into the public sphere is therefore essential if the police service is going to raise awareness of and empathy with its situation.

There’s a story that needs to be told and, collectively, the police are well placed to be the narrators.

John Chapman, Senior Project Development Officer, the Police Foundation