Police Foundation blog

Policing within a system


Posted on: Friday 17 Feb 2017
Posted by: Rick Muir


Policing is being pulled in two different directions.  On the one hand the internet has enabled crime to escape the bounds of local places and the scope of the police forces that serve them.  On the other hand many of the public safety issues the police face have become more complex requiring greater local knowledge and engagement. 

What these two trends share in common is that they require the police to work more effectively as part of wider systems. To tackle cyber crime the police must work across geographical borders, collaborating with global companies and international law enforcement agencies. To tackle complex local problems such as protecting vulnerable people from harm the police must work across organisational borders, collaborating with health professionals, social workers and community organisations. 

The recognition that one’s effectiveness is dependent on working as part a wider system is (by definition) not unique to policing. As society has become more complex (more mobile, urban, diverse, fragmented, technologically advanced) the outcomes we want can no longer be achieved by public servants working within the old organisational silos.  To give one example, whereas in the 1950s health care was about patients being treated in hospitals for broken limbs and infectious diseases, today it is about preventing lifestyle related illnesses like heart disease and diabetes that go way beyond the organisational grasp of the NHS. 

In an excellent new report Anna Randle and Hannah Anderson argue for a step change in collaboration to tackle complex problems like antisocial behaviour and entrenched health inequalities. These problems have multiple and messily related causes and can only be tackled by a collaborative effort, not just between public services but also involving business, the voluntary sector and citizens themselves.  

This goal is surely uncontroversial, but as the authors point out collaboration in practice remains relegated to woolly language in local authority strategies or to micro projects at the margins of the system. Despite plenty of apparent commitment to working collaboratively the mainstay of the public service machine remains fragmented along traditional lines and narrowly focused on ‘service delivery’. 

Randle and Anderson argue persuasively that to mainstream collaboration a new infrastructure is required, so that local actors are incentivised and enabled to work together.  This means, among other things, that all the important actors in a place work to common outcomes, share governance arrangements and have access to the same data and evidence base. 

What are the implications of this thinking for policing? To begin with, the first line in any police and crime plan should be ‘there will not be a police and crime plan’. What is required instead is for local police units to subordinate their priorities to those agreed with the other local partners. This should most naturally occur at the local authority level or at the level of combined city regional authorities in metropolitan areas. Note that in Scotland Community Planning Partnerships must now develop Local Outcomes Improvement Plans which seek to do exactly this. 

This requires brave leadership, with chief constables pushing back when bodies like HMIC criticise a force for not prioritising something that is not a locally agreed priority. It will also require considerable autonomy for local policing units to set priorities in agreement with their partners. Chief constables and police and crime commissioners, particularly those in large forces that cover a number of council areas, will need to ‘let go’. Of course there will still be force level requirements, not least those in the Strategic Policing Requirement, but local policing should become increasingly integrated with other local public services. 

Second, it means working through messy governance arrangements. Ideally all public service boundaries would be co-terminous with each other and those running the key services would be accountable to the same place and people. In city-regions with elected mayors and in county areas where the police borders mirror those of county councils and health bodies, this will be easier. 

But we should not allow messy governance to be used as an excuse for inaction. England and Wales will never have a neat and tidy political geography simply because our systems have evolved over centuries and a whole set of local identities and interests are invested in keeping them as they are. Even with overlapping governance arrangements it is still possible to develop place based plans, although it will often mean service leaders at higher levels will need to give up some of their power. 

Third, this kind of approach involves deep collaboration with citizens. We should not underestimate the impact of the ‘you said, we did’ culture that developed in the days of the peak New Labour delivery state. I remember attending a police/community meeting in Reading in the mid 2000s and asking what the police officers thought the public could do for themselves to tackle antisocial behaviour in the area. I was told emphatically ‘they should ring us and we will come out and deal with it’. This attitude remains the instinctive and generally well intentioned response of many public service professionals. However, all the evidence tells us that complex problems cannot be solved by delivering ‘off the shelf’ services to passive consumers. They can only be sustainably tackled by making use of the energies and agency of communities themselves. 

Fourth, achieving this vision requires distributed leadership, where police officers and other frontline workers have the autonomy to develop bespoke solutions to the demands that are presented to them by the public. This kind of work will be killed stone dead by the kind of mistrustful high stakes performance management cultures that are still common in policing. 

Fifth, workforce strategies should be nested within the needs of the wider system. Instead of having a police workforce strategy sitting in isolation from the strategies of the NHS, local authorities and so on, we need a shared strategy for a place. This means having a common understanding of current and future demand and looking at what capabilities and skills will be required to meet it. This might mean traditional roles are redesigned or combined with adjacent roles in other sectors. It might mean genuinely integrated multi-agency teams focused on problems such as child protection and modern slavery. 

Sixth, it means having a shared understanding of the big problems faced locally and the evidence base on which programmes or approaches work in tackling them. For example, in a recent project on reducing burglary in Luton we found that the biggest thing that could be done to prevent break ins would be more robust regulation of private rented housing. We also found that this would also help deal with problems that confront other public services like improper disposal of household waste and noise nuisance. However, while each individual service felt something of the impact from having poor quality private rented housing, none of them individually had the scope, powers or understanding to address the source of the problem, which was cross cutting and fell outside the day job. In a properly collaborative system there is more of a chance that data on the big causal drivers will be understood and fed back, the evidence on what works assessed and a collective focus brought to bear on the underlying problem. 

Given the scale and complexity of local systems it is natural to scratch one’s head and ask ‘where do we start?’ The truth is there is no neat road map to achieving the kind of vision I have described. Getting there will take time and a lot of persistence by many individuals in varying positions of power. If we sit back and wait for someone else to do this for us, it simply won’t happen. So it is up to all of us who buy these arguments and want to make these kind of changes to start somewhere and start now. 

The Police foundation's staff offer their personal views on some of the big policing and crime issues of the day from an evidence based perspective. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Police Foundation.

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