Policing at an impasse: between a reform rock and a governance hard place

Blog post

Policing at an impasse: between a reform rock and a governance hard place

Sixteen years ago this week I started my research career in and around policing, at that point in a Local Authority Community Safety Team in London. One of my first tasks was to provide a Detective Superintendent with the rationale for a ‘stretched’ burglary reduction target for the Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership (CDRP) for the following year, and I recall arguing for 20 per cent in the end.

At that time police forces and their crime reduction partners were awash with cash: many police operations were delivered through overtime, often funded out of CDRP budgets, and I worked in an office filled with local authority crime reduction officers covering a range of policy areas including burglary, antisocial behaviour, youth crime and domestic violence. The Metropolitan Police Service was recruiting in large numbers and at one point something like one-third of the borough’s frontline officers were probationers in their first two years of service.

It was of course the era of Public Service Agreements (PSAs) and targets, driven from the Home Office in the case of policing, where performance was overseen by the Policing Standards Unit. Things were simple: the police service was told what was important, and that was mostly annual reductions to volume crime like burglary.

How times have changed.

Last month I attended the annual National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) partnership summit in London, to take the temperature of policing at the most senior levels. In contrast to the confidence of the early 2000s I came away from the two days feeling pretty pessimistic.

After eight years of austerity the service had just been hit with an unexpected £417m annual pensions bill (£165m in 2019/20), which as well as taking a chunk of funding also threatens the legitimacy of PCCs’ planned precept rises. There was talk of at least two PCCs not being able to deliver balanced budgets next year, and West Midlands Police chief constable Dave Thompson remarked that he had “never seen such abject concern” as exists in relation to the 2019/20 funding settlement (expected next week). Chiefs talked privately about plans to cut PCSOs and refreeze police officer recruitment, and several speakers described the way Regional Organised Crime Units, funded from local PCC budgets, face a financial “cliff edge” next year with a £9.6m funding shortfall.

There was also talk of rising demand, with evidence that a “tipping point” may have been passed three or four years ago, and NPCC chair Sara Thornton argued that core policing is “seriously threatened” as it is being asked to “provide too many desirable and deserving services” (the headlines concerned misogyny). For good measure, there were also scary details on the policing, justice and security implications of and plans for a post-Brexit world, especially in the case of a no-deal exit.

More than anything, I came away with a sense that an impasse has been reached, which on reflection I think can be understood as the convergence of four related challenges.

1. A sceptical Treasury considers policing unreformed and resistant to change
One of the many stark contrasts between now and the early 2000s is the spectre of the police service (chiefs and PCCs, now apparently working closely with Home Office officials) having to plead with the Treasury for more funding, even while they are being hit with a huge pensions bill.

Sixteen years ago, policing and crime formed a core focus for a Labour government muscling into the political centre ground and pulling the ‘party of law and order’ rug from under the Conservatives; a huge injection of funding was a political decision. As discussed, the quid pro quo was that the police service had to promise what it would deliver in return, in line with government mandated priorities and targets (those Public Service Agreements), but the implications for the service were not especially onerous.

Since 2010, however, the Home Office has been substantially withdrawn from police governance and policing and crime have fallen off the political radar, barely featuring in the last two general elections and largely drowned out by the economy and NHS, and latterly Brexit. Now the police service is having to try and build and sell a compelling case for more money, on the Treasury’s terms, with the Home Secretary and Policing Minister apparently unable to significantly sway the opinion of their Treasury colleagues.

Here it is crucial that the Treasury’s view of the police service seems to be inherently sceptical. Indeed, the NPCC/APCC summit was told (albeit somewhat tangentially) by the Policing Minister Nick Hurd that his Treasury colleagues continue to consider that policing does not like change and remains substantially unreformed, while the Home Secretary Sajid Javid clarified that “if we are to make the case for more funding, then this does have to go hand-in-hand with further reforms”. The consequences that follow seem to be the view that policing is inefficient and that what policing needs is not so much more money as more reform.

2. Public value in a post-targets world: the police service can’t clearly explain the value it delivers nor how it should be measured
The second challenge relates to reconciling the breadth and evolving nature of the police role as the only generalist emergency service, picking up increasing levels of service failure from other public services (such as mental health), with the fact that the Treasury inevitably sees the world in terms of productivity and efficiency, measured in pounds and pence. (Moreover, according to Dave Thompson the Home Office only has a “partial view of policing”, which can only complicate matters.)

In the Blair/Brown era of New Public Management, we saw a reductive approach taken to policing, which was asked to deliver on performance targets, for example to reduce particular types of crime, bring more offenders to justice or, in the case of the Policing Pledge, to deliver key outputs (such as providing information, answering calls and holding public meetings). The target culture that resulted is now well understood to have driven perverse behaviours, notably around crime recording practices and the de-prioritisation of low-volume high-harm crimes.

In the post-targets era, policing has ‘discovered’ vulnerability and exploitation while the prioritisation of risk, threat and especially harm has come to the fore. But while this new vocabulary trips easily off the tongue, it is poorly defined and can be subjective. It certainly isn’t easy to measure. Vulnerability is everywhere you look across the business of policing and exploitation seems to sit uneasily for some alongside, for example, the profits and harms caused by the drugs trade. Meanwhile, harm indices and ‘harm-spotting’ rose to prominence a few years ago but then seemed to fade away, perhaps reflecting methodological disagreements and the general challenge of how to weigh unreported harms that might nevertheless need to be prioritised, especially where they intersect with exploitation and vulnerability.

So where are we now? What does ‘efficient’, ‘effective’ or even ‘good’ policing look like? As Sara Thornton acknowledged at the NPCC/APCC summit, the public value baby seems to have been thrown out with the targets culture bathwater, and nothing has been put in its place. Yes, we have HMIC PEEL inspections, with all their narrative detail and Ofsted-style judgements, but crucially they don’t translate into the Treasury’s language of pounds and pence return on investment. Moreover, by virtue of the fact they need to be narrative judgements, they arguably underline the difficulty, perhaps even foolishness or futility, of thinking that the police role can be meaningfully distilled down to a set of headline indicators. The artificial simplicity that the target-driven model involved cannot hold at a time when the pressing issues of the day involve the likes of knife crime, child sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, modern slavery, exponential increases in digital evidence, growing mental health demand and apparently increasing numbers of county lines drug markets (to say nothing of wider organised crime, terrorism and extremism). In all cases, responses aren’t closed and finite engineered industrial processes but complex, fluid and multi-agency.

3. Value for money: there is no robust cost/benefit evidence base about operating models and measures of productivity and efficiency are elusive
In his speech to the NPCC/APCC summit, the Policing Minister was clear that what is needed is a “more for more” argument to the Treasury, moving away from “another story of stretch and strain”, which we can infer means (lots) more outcomes for (some) more money given a general focus on efficiency.

But, following the comments above about public value, which outcomes? And how much do we know about current unit costs, especially given the breadth of the police role, regional variations in costs and the profile of demand, the high degree of discretion and service elasticity in policing, and the wide range of operating models and contexts? For example, should investigations be carried by response teams, neighbourhood teams or CID (it varies by force and crime type) and what are the implications for productivity? What proportion of resources should be allocated to emergency response, against what response time targets or expectations, and what happens to downstream workloads if that is varied? How much effort should be invested in proactivity, including intelligence gathering and analysis, and how should productivity be assessed? What about screening policies: which crimes should be screened in for investigation, which victims should receive a police visit, what is the impact of investigation timescales on outcomes and productivity? Or searching for missing people, or policing the roads, or any of the myriad other things police forces do every day?

The cost/benefit evidence base about most of these decisions simply does not exist in robust form, while the last time activity-based costings were calculated was in 2007/8 when I’m told few held the results in particularly high regard. Today, as was clearly expressed by ACC Alex Murray at the summit, efforts to demonstrate efficiency savings to the Treasury are problematic because it is often unclear what is an efficiency and what is a cut, and where capacity and capability intersect. That is before even trying to factor in the multi-agency context in which policing operates, both in terms of picking up so-called failure demand from other services (such as mental health) and in collaborating with other services to respond to risk, harm and so on (as in the case of domestic violence).

When the Policing Minister said, a week after the NPCC/APCC summit, that “we expect the police to take all reports of crime seriously and for each case to receive an initial investigation”, the police service might reasonably have asked him to define ‘seriously’ and ‘investigation’ (and seek to resource the service accordingly). But these are flexible concepts and indeed they inevitably get flexed to enable police forces to keep functioning, with decisions tailored (i.e. prioritised) according to a given police force’s finite capacity to service demand at any given time.

In many ways then, the answer to the value for money question may well be ‘it depends’, but that is unlikely to satisfy sceptics at the Treasury.

4. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men: you can’t build transformational strategic reforms or a self-reforming system on fragmented governance and consensus-based decision making
Finally, to the reality of doing police reform in England and Wales. All the King’s horses… is of course a reference to the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme – the egg who, once broken, couldn’t be put together again despite everyone’s best efforts. In our case this is a metaphor for the fragmented governance landscape, resulting from the introduction of elected PCCs and the withdrawal of the Home Office under localism, which seems to be unable to arrange itself into a body capable of strategic reforms where there will inevitably be ‘losers’ as well as ‘winners’. This is further compounded by the requirement for consensus to make strategic decisions, for example at Chiefs’ Council, and also the varied police force-level funding mix (central government vs council tax precept) which acts as a structural barrier to consolidation, as seen in the recent collapse of merger talks between the police forces of Dorset and Devon and Cornwall.

Even where collaboration has been possible, we are seeing a growing number of collaborations breaking down under the pressures of stretched finances, most recently with the chief constable and PCC of West Mercia unilaterally announcing their withdrawal from the ‘merger in all but name’ strategic alliance with their much smaller neighbour Warwickshire (reviewed by the Police Foundation in 2014). At the same time, the much-heralded Specialist Capabilities programme, which was intended to drive cost savings and bolster the resilience of the police service as a whole, has foundered on parochial concerns and an aversion to anything that might be interpreted as commodifying policing (for example, the prospect of forces buying and selling specialist capabilities with each other).

There are also signs that such consensus as may have existed around the Police Education and Qualification Framework (PEQF), a centrepiece of workforce reforms (not least as demanded by the Treasury in return for better pay), is also coming under pressure as the finer details emerge and budgets continue to be squeezed. Lincolnshire Police is leading the opposition, arguing that the proposed model will be too costly in terms of officer abstractions, as a result of which they are proposing a ‘fourth entry route’ that would not involve a degree-level qualification (an idea that has attracted support from at least five other PCCs). That significant elements of PEQF have also met strong opposition from the rank and file merely reinforces the sense that under current conditions the kinds of reforms needed to satisfy the Treasury are far from straightforward.

Indeed, here is the crucial point: none of this points to a system capable of self-reforming. On the contrary, there are significant structural barriers to reform, nowhere more clearly ‘baked in’ by government policy than in the form of PCCs and localism. We have a government pulling in different directions, with the Treasury demanding reforms while Home Office policies make those harder, if not impossible.

Some thoughts on where next
To recap, I think we have an impasse at the intersection of four issues. First, a sceptical Treasury, adamant that the police service is inefficient and must reform, and that any case for more funding must be addressed in pounds and pence of additional productivity linked to further reforms. Second, the inability of the police service to offer a compelling account of public value in the Treasury’s terms, having failed to find a public value narrative to succeed the target culture of the 1990s and 2000s. Third, the absence of evidence about productivity and efficiency in policing. And finally, fourth, decentralised and fragmented governance arrangements that rely on consensus and inhibit structural and transformational reform.

The question that inevitably follows is how this impasse might be broken, in particular how to reconcile the need for more reforms delivered by governance arrangements that don’t seem up to the task. Here it seems there are at least three possible approaches.

First, although it has shown little appetite to do so, the Home Office could adopt a more directive position, ‘stepping back in’ to the strategic centre. At the light touch end of the scale this could be in the form of ‘more of the same’ financial levers, incentivising forces to adopt government policy ideas as seen with the Transformation and Innovation Funds. Somewhere in the middle, they might lean more heavily on the Strategic Policing Requirement, while at the ambitious end much more radical changes could be envisaged, including to governance arrangements, decision-making mechanisms or even force structures. For example, in research on the governance of police force collaboration commissioned by the NPCC and APCC, the Police Foundation proposed consideration be given to a form of qualified majority voting by chief constables and PCCs as a way of enabling more radical change and avoiding reforms having to move at the pace of the slowest.

Second, given that we know financial considerations are barriers to reform, a case could be put to the Treasury for funding to enable force mergers, for example by helping to bridge precept differentials and perhaps where necessary buy out outsourcing contracts.

Third, a Royal Commission (or an equivalent body) could be convened to consider questions of structures, functions, governance and funding, making recommendations about the way forward based on a dispassionate reading of the facts (although I worry that a Royal Commission on policing would not be able to contend meaningfully with police responsibilities at the interfaces with other services, where much of the contention arises).

None of those, however, addresses the pressing matters of the missing ‘public value’ narrative, nor the lack of evidence about productivity and efficiency, both of which might reasonably be assumed to be as necessary for individual forces as the police service overall. Here it seems that the police service and its political counterparts may need to get their own houses in order, and I wonder if that might start with a rethink of the ‘national leads’ model that sees chief officers taking on responsibility for developing national policies in their ‘spare time’ and without the benefit of national-level capacity. Perhaps it is time for a National Centre for Policing Policy, acting as a think tank for the service.

It is of course possible that the political calculus will shift towards more funding for the police service, irrespective of the evidence that can be assembled by the service itself, and we may see a financial reprieve of some kind in the 2019/20 funding settlement to be announced later this month. If that does happen, I think it would be both tempting but also a mistake to kick down the road the big issues identified above. Most notably, the current governance arrangements for policing seem at best sub-optimal, at worst unable to deliver reforms in the wider public interest, and something has got to give. The risk must be that it is the service provided to the public that ends up suffering.