This article was published in Conservative Home on 20 August 2012
Fresh from attending the Olympics, or watching them on television, prospective Police & Crime Commissioner candidates will have two impressions – one about the absolute shambles G4S made of providing security staff and the other concerning the tremendous job done by the military personnel and Police Officers to keep them safe.
That the operation was scaled up massively at short notice and the people concerned had travelled far from home at great personal and family inconvenience was never apparent and as Theresa May and Nick Herbert have both said, Britain demonstrated just how good our military and police services can be.
No doubt the guillotine blade is being sharpened at G4S to deal with the immense reputational damage done to that company, but there are wider implications for policing – especially as many of the “big players” in the field have similar reputational challenges to handle, Reliance (prisoner handling), KBR (Guantanamo Bay), this is a sector that carries presentational difficulties no matter what the benefits may be.
Before the news about G4S, a number of forces were considering significant “outsourcing” arrangements. Whilst the West Midlands and Surrey were at the forefront, many more had appended their organisation to the tender document, so they could take advantage of the arrangements later if needs be.
Labour had already labelled this as “privatisation of the police” and obviously bad (conveniently forgetting similar arrangements had developed whilst they were in Government) and it will be a key campaign issue in the forthcoming elections. However, having read the tender document I wrote about my reservations at the wide nature of the proposals, because if all that was included were done by someone else, what would the Police actually have left to do?
Ministers have moved properly and swiftly to say there is no question of patrol being outsourced away from the police, whilst reaffirming the need to think imaginatively and radically to maintain front line services.
Yet there is no doubt that private sector efficiencies can and should be utilised as part of the cost savings Police & Crime Commissioners will have to achieve to maintain and improve the service as we drive through police reform.
This isn’t a mantra about “public bad, private good” but acknowledging, as Ministers have, the great strengths the operational side of the police can demonstrate, whilst seeking to make the essential support elements more efficient and deliver better value for money.
I believe the approach should be that where something is being done in the Police that does not need the training, skills and powers of a Police Officer to do it, the first question needs to be “Why are you doing it in the first place?”
For example, “Health & Safety” and “Diversity” advisers abound in the police and have not been cut because Chief Constables are too risk averse to do so. Yet Health & Safety is a core management activity, knowledge of which should be a selection criterion before people are promoted, rather than a “dark art”, understood only by the chosen few.
“Diversity” problems are best avoided by setting standards and giving clear leadership, backed up by discipline, rather than sending everyone on “Traveller Awareness” seminars once a year.
Get people who are being paid high salaries to manage, to do just that – and recognise that as Commissioner, the job is to deliver the message to the public as to why these changes are happening.
It’s time to move away from the situation where Police Authorities make budgetary decisions that impact on services, but are strangely absent when it comes to interviews about it on local radio, leaving this for the Chief to take the flak.
If the work is required, the second consideration is “What is the most effective and efficient way of doing it?” Which presents the opportunity to consider whether the additional flexibility brought by having police officers undertaking a task, or the way in which the post holder thinks about the context of the activities being undertaken may have a beneficial effect.
Quite often it’s a good idea for somebody who actually understands the patrol environment to be working in a Headquarters post where their operational knowledge may give a bit of common sense to a policy – especially if that individual can be told at a moment’s notice by the Chief Constable to get his riot kitbag and jump in a van to go and help another force out.
This is especially relevant where salaries for support staff are frequently not much less or even the same as a uniformed Constable – and the reforms developed by Tom Winsor will reduce the differential even more – and it’s not me as an ex-cop wanting to protect the retention of police officers, in my business I much prefer to have employees who can fulfil more than one business need – it saves money.
The final issue is “How can the best value for money be achieved?” Which enables delivery of a support service using whoever can provide the quality required in the most cost-effective manner – which may be by sharing with another force or local council, or even the Fire, Ambulance or Hospitals in the area, as well as using the private sector.
Commissioners should consider simplifying the procurement process to enable small local businesses to compete for these opportunities, which will circulate money the force has to spend on support services within the local economy, thereby promoting growth and employment opportunities.
My experience in business has led me to believe that effective relationships with small providers of services generally work to the benefit of overall achievement and that they are far more flexible than larger organisations.
Similarly, having been frustrated by it for many years as a police officer I know the unwieldy manner in which Public Sector procurement operates limits the scope for small and medium sized businesses to bid for work, whilst at the same time costing a fortune in terms of bureaucracy.
Whilst it is entirely proper for taxpayers money to be spent with financially resilient, stable suppliers, the way in which this is translated into requirements in bid documents excludes many for no reason at all.
Why should a small business need to get “Investors In People” accreditation just so they can paint the windows at a Police Station? Not only will local decorators be able to undertake the work – they will be proud to say they support their local police in this way.
Additionally, although large spends have to go through processes that involve competitive tender, greater value may be may be obtained by properly and legitimately devising frameworks that enable a preselected group of local suppliers to undertake schemes of work without attracting allegations of disaggregation, whereby an overall contract value above the tender thresholds is given to one provider by the back door.
The Public Sector also pays inflated prices to those businesses they deal with – and that’s before somebody changes the contract specification. Then watch the price go up – it’s not that long ago our force’s Chief Constable ended up with the embarrassment of a new shower facility costing £27,000 because the project was allowed to creep.
Above all grind out the efficiencies by making management do what it is paid to do.
On average, about 40 members of the (about 1000) support staff in my local force are off sick every day, at an annual cost to the taxpayer north of £1m. It is clear there is a level of tolerance for sickness in the Public Sector that is not apparent in Private Sector organisations.
I have to confess this was a lesson I learned early on when I made the change from public to private sector. I was rather proud of my approach to sickness management as a senior policeman, only to have my hubris exposed when fellow Directors told me not to worry about the issue and then showed me why. The problem simply did not exist.
Contrast this with a conversation I had not that long ago speaking to a senior staff member at a Public Sector college, who bemoaned the level of sickness she was having to deal with but would not change her approach because she would have “grievance procedures” to deal with if they got tough about managing absence.
It goes without saying that not only will productivity improve if staff are present all the days they are paid for, but you will probably find that less people are required and long term savings can accrue.
The same applies to support staff numbers and their job roles, the local force (about 1400 police officers strong) has more than eighty people in “HR”, fifty-odd in “IT” and nineteen in a “Futures Directorate”. These levels of over staffing can and should be got rid of.
None of this is glamorous and it’s certainly not easy, but if it’s glamour or an easy life someone’s looking for, being a Police & Crime Commissioner may not be the best career choice. However, it may be that before they put all their faith in “big” outsourcing, they may generate the savings they need and get better support services as a result by adopting a simpler approach.