By the end of this month, 41 newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales will be facing the challenge of filling their diaries with appointments to help them get to grips with a role that is both new and controversial. Whatever their mandate from the electorate, their role will open up some very interesting possibilities around public involvement in policing.
However, behind this significant change sits a number of questions for policing in England, and near the top of the list is how policing could operate within the possibilities created by taking a strategic commissioning approach to the way that policing operates. Strategic commissioning is of course nothing new, it is an established approach in many parts of the public sector and when it is done well and with care new operational opportunities arise, and in certain cases significant economies and quality improvements can be made.
Ensuring that we, as members of civil society, are adequately protected and that crime is efficiently detected will always be the core role for the police; but the emphasis is shifting in some very important areas. Crime prevention is a core task and there are clear benefits in attaining targets through early intervention with young people and those that are more vulnerable in society. Indeed, here the police have developed some interesting and innovative experience through partnership working and aligning intended outcomes with other public bodies and agencies; but the prevailing performance mindset in policing is one of targets and rational planning and not always one of the application of imagination. Where we can see some powerful examples of the benefits of strategic commissioning in other public services it is often around the imaginative approach to the way that joined up outcomes can be achieved. This often brings with it some uncomfortable choices. At a simple level if we took away the gritting of the highway in winter and focused our attention onto making the pathways safer and free from snow and ice, then we potentially have fewer elderly members of society having their lives ruined through shattered bones and in so doing save us, the taxpayer a fortune in the expert care they require to enable them to recover. Can the PCC now do more than merely be held to account by the electorate in budget setting and the overemphasised issue of hiring and firing the Chief Constable?
Already advanced thinking is taking place. In West Midlands Police work is underway to look at how strategic commissioning can open up opportunities to go beyond simple target attainment and seek to demonstrate how effective policing can have a wider impact. For example, a concentration of resources upon an often deprived locality could reduce house break-ins and burglary, which in turn could impact upon a reduction in insurance premiums – and which then could put some marginal but important extra spending power into that community to make other services more sustainable.
Whatever we think about the new PCCs, let’s hope that their diaries will have some reflective thinking time and allow imagination to flourish and break free of the terror of targets that policing and communities have suffered from in the past.
Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.