If Cameron turns on the charm, he should take care not to blow his opening lines

John Lehal, managing director of Insight Public Affairs, last week wrote in an article for the Guardian website (“A Year on, it’s time for a charm offensive on open public services”) that private sector involvement in policing was a key test of the Government’s ambition for public service reform and that David Cameron should lead a “charm offensive” to engender grassroots support. I thought I should offer a response.

First of all public service reform should not be measured by whether or not the West Midlands and Surrey police forces and, as reported in the Evening Standard, the Metropolitan Police decide to outsource their services or not. There are far more important issues upon which to make judgements on the Prime Minister’s ambition; though they may make a contribution to the election defeat of the Cameron Government in 2015 and that of any police and crime commissioner who decides to be associated with any such schemes.

A PR campaign that refers to these arrangements as ‘privatisation’, as John has done, as opposed to what they are – an outsourcing arrangement – will make the task of opposing them and using them for political advantage, so much easier. The privatisation and the outsourcing of services are very different, and that difference is very significant in terms of their continued accountability to politicians and to the public.

I am not against outsourcing or the involvement of the private sector in delivering public services, far from it. In my career I have made a contribution to pushing back the barriers on alternative service provision. But for national government there are far more important things to do and to be judged upon. Take for instance reform to social care funding; yes we got a White Paper at least 18 months later than expected, but it puts off the big issues a further year away; and no one can seriously say that the Government is truly tackling the structural youth unemployment problem.

Common to finding solutions to these and other public service reforms is not the question of ‘who’ provides services, but resolving the issues: of ‘what’ services and interventions are required; ‘how’ they are to be funded; and the relationship between state, the citizen and the wider economy. But it appears that for this Government, public service reform should come down to a simple ‘make or buy’ proposition; this will not lead to real and meaningful reform and it puts the ‘cart before the horse’ in finding solutions.

Turning back to policing; yes we should be asking ourselves why is it that only 11% of officers and police community support officers are working on the frontline. That should be the focus. It is therefore right that the Government are addressing the staff terms and conditions that are preventing flexible working practices.  But now the Government has decided to go down the route of directly elected police and crime commissioners it should leave well alone on what happens next.

John believes that when elected, “police and crime commissioners will either face reality and open the floodgates in forces where chief constables have put outsourcing and collaboration on the table, or the fear of a backlash against privatisation may result in political expediency”. But all commissioning decisions are political as they balance community needs, priorities with available public resources. It would be odd for the Government to argue on one hand that the police force and budget needs to be directly accountable to the public through a political process and then complain that such decisions cannot be political; and political expediency is about putting off decisions or taking another option when politicians cannot explain or secure support of their electorate. That’s not always a bad thing especially given what is at stake.

The key test whether these arrangements are to taken forward, as John concedes, is reaching a consensus principally around what is, what is not, appropriate to outsource. Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, has said that in the case of the Metropolitan Police an “irreducible core” of duties will be protected but claimed private firms could run some Scotland Yard services “without making the thin blue line any thinner”. But what does that mean in practice? Well, Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe seems to be clear that this will not involve investigatory and patrolling services but that business could boost efficiency “in some areas…such as back office functions” but is he on the same page as Mayor Johnson?

Indeed the talk in London has been that the private sector could run community patrols, victim and witness support, manage high risk individuals and manage engagement with the public. In the case of West Midlands and Surrey services such as investigating crimes, patrolling neighbourhoods and even detailing suspects have been included for consideration in their outsourcing plans. All these functions seem to be central to the very purpose of the police force and can hardly be described as ‘back office’ functions. In the private economy businesses would never outsource functions which gave the organisation its competitive advantage; so why would a police force outsource any function which faces the public, victims or indeed, potential criminals and which underpins their own ‘competitive advantage’ that is ‘policing by consent’?

This in all probability will not come about. For a start, we now find that since John’s article that the plans in Surrey and in the West Midlands have been shelved in response to opposition from most of the police commissioner candidates. No doubt the G4S Olympics’ security failure could not have helped given that the firm is one of the prospective bidders. Regardless it was folly to push ahead even as far as the procurement process had got, before the commissioner elections had taken place. In any case my suspicion is that Surrey and West Midlands have cast net wide (even catch all) to allow for a wide ranging dialogue with prospective contractors and ensure that they do not step outside the procurement process which will require them to go back to the beginning. I expect that the procurement process and the subsequent contracts (if there are any) will be more narrowly and potentially traditionally drawn; never mind the impact of a newly elected commissioner might have.

But will the resulting plans enable the police force to make the 20% savings expected of them and protect the frontline or can we hope that it leads to increasing the number of uniformed police available for frontline duties? Given that so called ‘back office’ functions – such as ICT, payroll, human resources, finance, accommodation and fleet management – are a smaller proportion of the local policing budgets, and as evidenced in local government, it might make a contribution, but not a significant one.

Then when we look to local government, which is well ahead of the game on use of external contractors, we see that they are pausing on long term contracts and looking to new ways to engage with the private sector. The police force may therefore be heading in the direction of ‘old practice’ not ‘best practice’. It is also a sobering thought that all too often the outsourcing of corporate services have never reached the expectations – private sector experience suggests that 60 to 70% of strategic outsourcing arrangements between companies fail, and few meet expectations; there have been mixed results in local government too.

All this and given the fall out of the G4S situation will probably mean that newly elected police and crime commissioners, if they are to support private sector involvement, will be looking for something which is quite different to what has been proposed up to now. So what is the answer?

I believe it might lie somewhere around a hybrid outsourcing model which provides a modular and staged approach to increasing the involvement of the private sector that supports, but does not substitute, the police force’s relationship with the public. At its core would be the outsourcing of well-known and truly ‘back office’ functions but with a strategic element which rewards the private sector for (and this is important) ‘co-producing’ with police staff, changes in working practices (and cutting red tape) to help the uniform staff spend more time doing the thing they joined the force to do, serving their local communities on the frontline.


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