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A duty to innovate

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 16

Anthony Painter, director of policy and strategy at RSA, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and co-author of ‘Safer Together: policing a global city in 2020’, discusses reform of the police service.

Police forces were expecting a ferocious cut to their budgets in the run-up to the Spending Review. While at the time of writing the force by force funding allocations are not yet known, it is clear that a real-terms increase overall for the course of this Parliament avoids the worst of the anticipated cuts. Even with this seeming reprieve, the nature of policing will need significant reform in the very near future. Without reform, the challenges for the police as a result of the changing demands on them could become unmanageable. 

The police face constantly shifting demands, partly thanks to our changing expectations and convictions as a society, including our laws. For example, we are seeing an increasing and rightful willingness of rape victims and victims of domestic violence to speak out, and a rapid spread of crime and disorder through the internet – encompassing fraud, harassment, child exploitation and global crime networks. 

Increasingly, there is a surge in both crimes of proximity and those initiated and even perpetrated at distance. The latter category requires access to new global networks, highly specialist skills and a new understanding among the public of the risks they face. The former category is just as demanding, if not more so. A well-documented case is that of demands placed on police relating to incidents involving someone with mental health needs who may be creating a disturbance and placing themselves or another at risk. In London, such incidents now occupy up to 20% of police time. The point here is that the police alone do not have the power to manage these demands on their time – a cross-agency approach is critical. 

This is nothing more than a starting point. Other public sector bodies will be facing precisely the same challenge: how is demand effectively managed when the powers, resources and capabilities to manage it effectively are held across agencies, localities and, indeed, Whitehall departments?

It has been clear in the RSA’s work with the Metropolitan Police over the last year that the internal mindset has been shifting, from seeking efficiency savings alone to more fundamental reform. Over the course of 12 months, a consultation process involved over 500 of the top police officers in London and a wide range of critical partners for the Met – from public services, to business, to local authorities, to the voluntary sector to representatives of London’s communities. ‘Safer together: policing a global city in 2020’ was the resulting report and it forewarned of three possible scenarios in the immediate future – ‘retrenchment’, ‘overstretch’ or ‘focused impact’.


A ‘retrenchment’ scenario is where the organisational efficiency dynamic overrides all else. Cost savings are made as the organisation focuses on its ‘core’ functions. However, as the service pulls back, its legitimacy and efficacy come under question. Trust breaks down. Since the Spending Review, this scenario has become less likely. 


Instead, ‘overstretch’ has become more of a threat. This involves a service failing to focus on where it can best meet the public’s needs and tries to do things pretty much in the same manner as it always has. This could afflict other public services too, but the police are most susceptible as the service of first resort. The police always have to respond. 

Resources become more thinly spread in this scenario, and partners start to lose faith in the police as they come to be seen as all response and little impact. 

‘Overstretch’ remains a significant risk as the impetus to follow through on reforms diminishes in a more favourable funding environment. Over time this scenario becomes unsustainable and the opportunity to respond with innovative collective strategies will have been missed. Instead, a ‘focused impact’ scenario is necessary. 

Focused impact 

This involves major innovation in professional practice, firm collaborative arrangements and a relentless focus on gathering and analysing information and sharing both data and learning with others. 

Specific proposals for London in ‘Safer Together’ included a Community Safety Index for London. This would combine objective measures of crime and incidence of risk and harm to the individual with subjective measures such as feelings of safety, absence of anti-social behaviour and neighbourhood quality. Every borough would have its score published – as is done in Rotterdam, which has adopted such an index. That could be expected to encourage all agencies to work together, as the index is a collective measure of success. 

A London Policing Impact Unit – housed within MOPAC, the mayor’s office for policing and crime, and extending its current work – would combine operational, academic, and strategic knowledge. The impact unit would analyse data and learn from on-the-ground experience of ‘what works’. These lessons would then be applied in the Met and beyond. A representative citizens’ panel would inform its work from an ethical and community relations standpoint. These structures are very common in the NHS and could become more common in policing too. 

The report also recommended that new forms of collective impact to focus on particular challenges should be extended. These would broaden and widen the multi-agency safeguarding hub and youth offending team approach, where agencies work in close cooperation. This means a permanent engagement on shared issues of concern: domestic violence, mental health, anti-social behaviour, gang-related violence, irresponsible licensing premises, vandalism, threats to particular communities, management of public space, drug addiction and more besides. 

It would require continuous and ongoing collective working with others in the public, commercial and voluntary sectors. Governance structures over each initiative would be permanent, with pooling of resources where necessary. There is also a need for deeper community engagement – especially through the safer neighbourhood boards and through the smart use of social media and public engagement tools. 

Using professional judgement, not just hierarchy and procedure 

These are major changes to the ways in which the Met would operate, including how it engages communities, and a change to how others would work with the Met in securing a safer city. As the College of Policing noted in its recent Leadership Review: “Policing at its best is based on knowledge allied to professional judgement, not on hierarchy wedded to procedure and practice.” 

In a more information-driven, connected organisation, knowledge and professional judgement can be more distributed (unless traditional hierarchy prevents it from being so). Policing is hierarchical because there are times when it has to act with very clear lines of sight and with organisational unity, for example following a major incident where members of the public are placed in severe danger or even worse. Indeed, it is the same in other emergency services including the NHS. But this is not necessarily the default position or, at least, what is required at all times.

To achieve a focus on problem solving, use, analysis and sharing of information and collective impact, major organisational reforms will be required of the Met. Individual problem solving should be encouraged, albeit shared with others as needed. An internal culture of initiative would be cherished, albeit within the context of an organisation that at times of public risk has to assume a clear operational protocol. Leaders would aim to give officers and staff, the tools and knowledge they need to be creative in resolving knotty issues with others. The Met would become more open to expertise and leadership from outside. 

Medium-term (two to five years) civilian contracts in specialist areas such as mental health, cyber-security, and business management should become far more common and, most importantly, these staff should be treated as equals within the Met organisation. All these measures suggest a very different organisational approach to the current practice. 

Time to adapt 

The funding settlement means there is now more time to adapt and get the right reforms – but the pressure still remains. If the commitment to reform is undermined then an enormous opportunity to reform policing in London will have been lost. 

A successful package of reforms in such a key public service in a complex global setting will hold lessons for not only other police forces but for other public services also. 

If the Metropolitan Police can achieve the type of change necessary to secure ‘focused impact’ then it could be an exemplar more widely. Smart public services will find radically different internal dynamics, new ways of pursuing a common mission with others, and open themselves out to those who rely on their services. The Spending Review places the police in a position of significant responsibility. There is now a duty to innovate, not only to ensure a more effective service but also to demonstrate new models of public service to others. If they can’t or won’t then an enormous opportunity has been missed. 

The police are often seen as great responders but not necessarily as great innovators. This is a moment to change that perception.



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