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Will Tanner: Some police forces are tackling inefficiency but others are slow to reform

Tanner-Will Will is a Researcher for the Reform think tank.

Last week, the Home Secretary rightly set out the need for wide-ranging reform of policing in order to improve efficiency, to give police leadership more flexibility and to make forces directly accountable to the public. This morning the Winsor review of police pay and conditions is expected to outline recommendations to give Chief Constables greater freedom to structure their forces appropriately and reduce the unsustainable cost of the police workforce.

Yet the Government’s efforts to reform policing may face difficulties unless Chief Constables grasp the opportunity of reform to embed a culture of efficiency in the working practices of policing at every level.  A roundtable debate hosted by Reform and chaired by Jan Berry, who recently completed her appointment as Reducing Bureaucracy in Policing Advocate, last week explored the challenges facing policing and the level of response so far. The scale of the challenge is significant, with spending cuts in the region of 20 per cent over a four-year period that includes an Olympic Games. However, as Jan Berry found in her final report into Reducing Bureaucracy in Policing in October, a third of all the police do is waste; in that activity is either unnecessary, over engineered or preventable by a more effective response first time around. In Cheshire a recent survey of calls for assistance found that 41 per cent of police responses could be cut out due to inefficiency. As the discussion bore out, there is a need for common sense to be restored to policing, so that systems and processes are based upon both policing demand and a greater level of interaction between public and police.

However both police practitioners and industry specialists around the table suggested that a fragmented picture of reform is emerging. While some forces are realising significant gains by reconfiguring processes, restructuring their workforce or sharing services with neighbouring forces, the trend is far from universal. Indeed, a number of delegates spoke of a “sit tight” attitude among some forces, expectant that funding levels will be reinstated within the cycle. As a result, strategic planning has been limited to one or two years, budgets have been “salami-sliced” and forces have failed to identify or address the long-term drivers of policing demand. The failure to implement system-wide reform also became apparent with regard to collaboration between forces. While a number of forces have successfully applied economies of scale in procurement, IT and back-office services, partnership has too often been seen as a way of shifting operations and financial risk off the balance sheet. In short, the current funding crisis for police forces has not been enough to deliver the wholesale cultural shift necessary for an efficient and effective police service.

The roundtable discussion revealed three areas that need to be addressed in order to ensure real and lasting reform; the removal of waste, greater clarity in accountability mechanisms, and a more sustained and mature approach to inter-force collaboration. With between 30 and 40 per cent of activity classed as waste, police forces can do significantly more to identify demand and change the way they do things accordingly; for example by cutting out duplication or referring cases onto other local bodies better placed to deal with the problem. Secondly, there needs to be far greater clarity and demarcation around the question of to whom, and for what, police are accountable. The greatly expanded role of police forces in recent years, to include everything from complex child harassment cases to e-crime and regional flooding, demands a clearer definition of what success looks like in policing. Finally, collaboration between neighbouring forces and between the police and other local bodies, and the sharing of budgets, must be approached with greater emphasis on long-term partnership and the equal sharing of risk, in order to ensure savings are sustained beyond individual Chief Constables’ tenures.

Tom Winsor’s review should give Chief Constables the flexibility to restructure their workforces strategically and, crucially, deliver value for money to a workforce that has grown by 32 per cent in the last decade and makes up over 75 per cent of police costs today. But for reform to deliver lasting change there needs to be a cultural shift in the police service that embeds efficiency and effectiveness in policing practice.


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