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Peter Walker: How ring-fencing turns public servants into state dependents

Walker peterPeter Walker retired as Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police in 2003.  He now owns SuperSkills, a Construction Training Business in Thirsk.  Follow Peter on Twitter.

This week's crime figures demonstrate once again that not only is the number of crimes recorded by police falling, but that the more resilient Crime Survey of adults in England and Wales confirms the trend.

Many issues flow from this data, not least that Labour's scaremongering about the adverse impact of reducing police officer numbers is shown to be wholly unjustified.  The residual annoyance is that over the years research in a wide variety of jurisdictions has consistently demonstrated the lack of any direct correlation between police numbers and crime.  Interestingly, Labour's message has lately moved to saying the number of arrests made by police is coming down.  They don't seem to understand that fewer crimes will inevitably lead to a reduction in arrests over time.

The last point reinforces the additional benefits of effective law enforcement.  Successive Home Secretaries have made clear the need to reduce time spent on paperwork.  In policing, what better way to do so than by doing as Theresa May has consistently said and "Reduce crime".  Fewer crimes = less crime reports to fill in = more time on the beat.

At the strategic level, apart from reducing the impact upon victims, crime reduction takes enormous cost out of policing, whether staff time or simply getting around and investigating or prosecuting the offences involved.  This year's reduction represents savings running into millions of pounds.

Spending on police has gone down.  Crime continues to fall.  Further cost reductions ensue.  Greater effectiveness, more efficiency.  Yet if Ministers had listened to the naysayers in 2010, the efficiencies would not have been realised.  The same old things would have been done in the same old ways with taxpayers footing the bill.

As the next spending round gets under way, it is important that clear understanding exists about the need for further challenge to public sector shibboleths - the oft-repeated mantras that stand in the way of change and cost reduction.  When faced with the immovable challenge of a tighter budget, new approaches emerge and the work gets done.

Perhaps this also presents an opportunity for Departments of State to operate differently.  Rather than responding to the spending round tactically, seeing what the impact upon their bit of the state looks like for the review period and chopping a bit of spending away here or there, they should make some really strategic, perhaps even cross-departmental changes.

Recent news that significant savings are being garnered by the Home Office and DCLG through sharing office space in Marsham Street is an example.  Or consider the changes in police pay that are now starting to work through into force budgetary requirements.  These don't just deliver what is needed here and now - they have long term financial benefits.

Yet there is another change that could take place which is cultural, rather than just about "pay and rations" issues, and it is probably a hangover from the last Labour government. Gordon Brown was a controller and under his stewardship, the fingers of Whitehall penetrated into the deepest recesses of service delivery.  His favourite trick was the creation of "ring fenced" amounts of money that could only be used for particular purposes.

This has created a generation of civil servants who are used to a closer relationship with activity than outcomes.  In some Departments, they are rather like a mother bird who has to feed all her chicks.  If the chicks don't think they are getting their fair share (and they never do) they squawk loudly.  But just as in nature, if mummy bird isn't there, they are quiet.  The chance that "special pleading" to Ministers or senior civil servants will have a beneficial result, a particular grant, or change to a funding formula only encourages one thing - more of the same.

Everybody knows the next spending round will be tough.  The low-hanging fruit have been picked, the easy savings made.  Most of this has resulted in changes to tactics.  Driving really imaginative and radical change, strategic choices about the shape of services, sharing of buildings, use of IT, merger of back office departments, deciding whether the public really want a public service to do something - and using local electoral accountability to underpin the decision...this is what has to happen next if we are to shrink the size and cost of the State.

People who lead public sector organisations got their jobs because they wanted them.  Nobody has been forced to be there.  Smaller budgets mean they will have to take decisions to do things differently.  Departments of State should monitor outcomes, identify poor performance, refer doomsayers to places where performance is better using the same resources.  But stop being "mummy bird" and we'll start to see real change happen.


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