Last month the Home Office published a list of successful bids to the 2016/17 Police Innovation Fund, which is funded this year by £55m top-sliced from the main Home Office Police Grant (broken down into £28m for new bids and £27m for the second year of two-year projects from 2015/16).
The Innovation Fund is part of the government’s commitment to incentivise innovation, improve services, and drive cost savings in policing. Policing Minister Mike Penning has claimed it ‘will help forces save around £250m over the next five years and thousands of hours of police time’, which suggests the Home Office expects around £2 to be saved for every £1 spent. I want to argue that it would better achieve these ambitions with much greater transparency.
The successful proposals this year range in size from £38,500 to £4.8m, and from two police forces to all forces and 14 further partners, and cover a wide range of subjects most prominently IT-related projects.
Aside from providing an interesting window into the trajectory of police innovation, the list published by the Home Office is remarkable for how little information it includes, and it appears there are no plans to provide any more. In correspondence, a Home Office civil servant merely clarified that ‘individual details of specific projects can be obtained through the forces and PCCs’.
I want to argue that the public interest would be far better served in cases such as this with a presumption of transparency. What would that look like?
- Publishing successful bid application forms (minus personal data and operationally or commerciallysensitive details, akin to FOIA processes)
- Publishing the assessment scores achieved by the bids and a summary of narrative comments
- Publishing evaluation reports at the conclusion of projects
This would serve three clear purposes:
First, it would allow the public, PCCs, chief constables and others to better understand the detail and quality of the proposals that have been funded, learn more about innovative practice across the country, and identify the implications for developing policy and practice in their own areas.
Second, consistent with the government’s ambition to develop the evidence base and professional status of policing, it would maximise the learning generated from this sizeable investment of public funds, which has been top-sliced from force budgets and therefore to which opportunity cost considerations apply. In particular, this would provide transparency around whether and how savings will actually be realised.
Third, the glare of public and peer scrutiny would almost certainly focus the minds of prospective bidders to maximise the quality and relevance of their proposals, including in relation to their plans for evaluation. The fact that £55m was allocated and exactly £55m has been committed must as a minimum raise concerns that there was no quality threshold for funding, rather that bids were funded in descending order of assessed scores until all the money was spent.
Critically, only the Home Office is in a position to provide this clarity across the Innovation Fund, and indeed it would demonstrate confidence in their own policy if they were to do so. Leaving transparency decisions to individual PCCs both obscures the strategic picture and means that any learning will necessarily be piecemeal and partial. That cannot be in the interests of the police service nor the public they serve.