Ever since Thursday's Police Commissioner elections, keyboards have been clicking in newsrooms across the country bemoaning the whole affair. Much of what is being published contains statements of the blindingly obvious, informed by the commentators' views about the proposal and process before the elections took place.
I've always held the view that once the elections were over, the real work on our proposal to develop more effective and locally understood approaches to police governance would start, they would be different from one area to another and would drive performance in a manner that has real local resonance. I'm also not stupid enough to think that there aren't a lot of people who disagree with this analysis and who have major reservations about the reform and the risks they perceive it brings.
One of the greatest frustrations for police officers is the complete lack of understanding the vast majority of the public have of the complexities of their job. In my short and unspectacular political career (I unsuccessfully applied to be the Conservative candidate in North Yorkshire) I regularly asked people how many police officers they thought were on duty in their area at night. That I never received a correct answer was unsurprising, but communities thinking that more police are on duty by a factor of at least ten – which was their consistent response – is a misapprehension that creates a matrix of ill-informed judgements about what level of service can be provided.
One could give dozens of similar examples, including the time consumed in dealing with people who are mentally ill, the anti social behaviour caused by Labour extending drinking hours across the country without a thought as to the impact this would have on emergency services, the challenges of meeting national obligations to provide assistance in times of crisis, or working across force boundaries to disrupt and deter Organised Crime. Delivering criminal justice is a complex enterprise and to be blunt, many people just don't know that.
This is why locally elected Commissioners are so important. Rather than 17 people who never really engaged with the public, cost a fortune and most importantly, levied taxes without having to subject them to a test at the ballot box, one person has the responsibility for determining priorities on behalf of their community, arranging for the money to be in place to deliver them and who, in a few months, will have to justify to that community what the Council Tax precept will be. It is they who will be able to explain to communities what the demands on the force are, how they are dealing with them and what help they need from the public and other agencies to do so.
Here's a prediction. The normal distribution curve will apply to the success of individual Commissioners, regardless of their political party. (The lists of issues is not exhaustive, but a note for the Candidates' Department is included.)
Some will simply not be up to the job – they will have been fortunate to be selected in politically "safe" areas, not had their policies tested in the campaign (which has nothing to do with their campaigning ability but will provide for an interesting first meeting with the Chief Constable), they may lack the strategic skills for the post or not have the personal resilience required for the constant criticism they may well face. They will answer this by trying to blame the Government for lack of money. (Expect some by-elections.)
The second group will "get by", but make no real difference. The same old processes, with their accompanying bureaucracy will continue. Crime may continue to fall, but in spite of, rather than because, the Commissioner holds office. Few changes will take place in the staff inherited from the Police Authority. Partnership working will provide employment for people who go to meetings for a living. Expect heat, but not light, from these areas, accompanied by bleating about resources. (Plan for the next election – because this area needs a better Commissioner and the public will know it.)
In the third group of force areas, we will see changes to working practices, some curtailment of the massive cost of sickness, greater visibility of patrolling officers, coherent approaches to victims. We will read about success in the newspapers, not just the recycling of the same old "initiatives". Partnerships will be developing. Crime will be falling, public satisfaction genuinely rising, victims coming forward because they have confidence in the system. Expect to see other forces copying what is being done. (Plan to select candidates that can develop these ideas in your area.)
The top performing Commissioners will be achieving performance, yet keeping Council Tax low. A high calibre Chief Constable will be working seamlessly with the Commissioner, officers and staff will have morale as high as the public's satisfaction with the service. Crime will be down and victim care will be second to none. Highly developed partnerships will be creating savings not only for the police, but across the criminal justice sector and local government. A well-worn path to the Commissioner's door will evidence other people coming to see how they are operating a Public Sector enterprise with a Private Sector culture and Police Service values. (Don't bother running here, it's a safe seat.)
As Commissioners start their work it is important to recognise they are but part of the reforms to policing and criminal justice the Government has been delivering. The Border Force, the National Crime Agency, the Policing College and the National Police Air service, reformed leadership of the Inspectorate, together with the creation of locally elected Commissioners have fundamentally changed the matrix of relationships between forces, national services and both local and national Government.
For this reason, the role of the Home Office, birthplace of so much bureaucracy during the Labour years, must also change and one thing is for sure, the Home Office will not be responsible for where individual Commissioners sit on the performance curve.
Theresa May has already signalled her intention to reduce central bureaucracy, by scrapping the targets she inherited from her predecessor and other measures. Anyone can see her determination to remove the "dead hand of Marsham Street" from local forces.
However, in a nation that has recognised it must reduce public spending year on year, there is inevitably more that will need to be done and the police budget will face further reductions as we continue to rid ourselves of the dreadful fiscal legacy created by the last Government.
It is essential that the whole Public Sector must get better at managing and reducing demand if it is to cope with reducing budgets and the first step must be that Departments of State look to those they place upon local services.
In the Home Office that means ensuring the creation of Commissioners, accountable not only to Police & Crime Panels, but to the electorate, reduces even further the amount of time and money involved in data collection – with every penny saved becoming available to front line services.
Yet there are further opportunities to save money. It is clear the Hillsborough cover-up has revealed more difficulties for an already costly and cumbersome complaints and conduct system. The Winsor Review has demonstrated how out of date the system for negotiating police pay and conditions has become. The recording of crime statistics has not moved with the times, no longer meets the needs of the public and would benefit from being overhauled to both save money and keep people informed.
There is no doubt we have both a reforming Government and a reforming Home Secretary. Much has been delivered already. The tasks facing us now are to consolidate the improvements achieved so far and to develop and deliver "Police Reform 2.0" – more devolvement, further reduction in central bureaucracy and less money spent propping up unnecessary centralised processes as we move towards the next General Election.