THE POLICEMAN'S lot is not a happy one. The force exhibits in extreme form the organisational stupidity that successive governments, particularly this one, have visited on all public services by imposing designs and procedures that make it impossible for them to learn. This is why, despite a 39 per cent increase in real resources over the past decade (an extra pounds 5bn) and a 25 per cent boost in manpower, effectiveness and morale has never been lower. The public now trusts the police less than it does doctors, teachers, judges or the NHS.
This is not their fault. 'They, and we, deserve better,' says Vanguard Consulting's Richard Davis, who has worked on policing as a system with several forces. Will Sir Ronnie Flanagan's long-awaited Review of Policing, which thudded on to ministerial desks last week, provide it? Not of itself, Davis believes. Flanagan knows policing is 'at a crossroads', the implication, rightly, being that it needs to change direction. Ultimately, however, he is himself too banged up in the dysfunctional system that created the problems to do more than tiptoe around the main issues.
Thus, the report doesn't go near the fear of many insiders that the reforms introduced by David Blunkett as Home Secretary were, intentionally or not, an attack on the fundamental duty of protecting the public and in danger of turning the force into an executive arm of the state. They worried that the systematic removal of police discretion was making the service a creature of the inspection and compliance regime, and hence government, rather than the citizen.
Flanagan treats this as an issue of bureaucracy. Police bureaucracy is indeed grotesque - at any one time, notes Davis, out of a command unit of about 350 officers, just 10 will be out policing, the rest behind desks recording data and form-filling - a colossal waste of resources that urgently needs pruning. But it is a symptom, not a cause, and palliatives such as 'civilianisation' (recruiting civilian pen-pushers to take the place of officers behind desks) or less intensive incident recording are just that.
The cause of the bureaucracy is the Soviet-style 'deliverology' regime developed by the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit under Tony Blair - 'targets and terror', as the equivalent became known in the NHS. In the police, the bureaucratic effects of deliverology were twofold. The first was that each target generated a standalone, ring-fenced sub-unit to deal with it. So every command unit has separate boxes for witness protection, offender management, domestic abuse, child protection, neighbourhood policing, crime prevention, intelligence, 'volume' crime, victim support, CID, firearms, licensing, schools liaison, together with the obligatory call centre with the forlorn task of routing calls to the right one (within 15 seconds). Co-ordination is a nightmare, with extra layers of staff drafted in to manage it.
Meanwhile, the target measurements being no help with public protection, their second effect is to generate an additional, valueless (value-eating, since it consumes resources) task of recording figures for government inspectors and auditors, the all-powerful apparatchiks of today's public-service regime. Their word carrying such weight, a cadre of internal auditors has grown up within police forces whose sole job is to check useless figures before they are reported, still more wasteful bureaucracy that prevents police from doing their job.
Remarkably, without that hindrance the job is perfectly do-able. The astonishing real story about crime is this: when police demand is analysed locally, much of it is predictable by type, time and geography, and perpetrated not by shadowy master criminals but a few offenders of distinctly average intelligence, already known to the authorities via school, social services or the police themselves.
So local policing isn't a nice-to-have, a sop to the public, it's essential to doing the job properly. Where some brave officers have ignored the official boxes, worked out the local issues and positioned themselves to respond to it, what happens? Crime falls, officers have more time to respond to calls, public respect and engagement increase. Unfortunately, less crime conflicts with the official target of more detection, so a sergeant on a peaceful patch will come under heavy pressure at month-end for more arrests and detections. This leads to criminalisation of playground squabbles, mobile phone insults and other absurdities. 'No wonder so many officers lose the will to live,' sighs Davis.
Flanagan doesn't deal with the baleful effects of deliverology perhaps politically he couldn't. The best to be hoped for from the report, therefore, may be the cover it provides for a few enterprising officers to reassert obligation to the public rather than government and quietly reconstitute whatever initiative and discretion hasn't been kicked out of them by the Home Office, their chiefs and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.
The Observer, 17 February 2008