5 reasons why it’s difficult to privatise the police

Over the past few years, the police have been thinking the unthinkable. Faced with a 20 per cent budget cut courtesy of the Coalition’s severe post-financial crisis ‘comprehensive spending review’, many forces have been toying with the policy of privatising frontline services to save money. Drawing upon new research I have just published in the British Journal of Criminology and Criminology and Criminal Justice, here are 5 reasons why this policy has been so difficult to implement.

  1. Media scaremongering

At no point have any police forces sold off their frontline services to the private sector. What they have been doing is contracting out some of these services – such as custody, call handling and managing police station front counters – to the private sector for a limited duration. So ‘privatisation’ is probably the wrong word for what the police have been doing since it implies a far greater degree of market penetration than is actually happening. ‘Outsourcing’ is a much better word. So why are we talking about the ‘privatisation’ of the police? Because this is how newspapers have framed the debate. They have peppered their headlines with the word ‘privatisation’ in anticipation that it will strike fear in the heart of the public and, in turn, shift more copies. A more nuanced commentary on police ‘outsourcing’ does not have the same fear-inducing effect. This has, predictably, caused problems for senior police officers who are being called upon to justify the ‘privatisation’ of what many regard as an inherently governmental service when they are not in fact privatising anything at all. (And, yes, I am fully aware that I have shamelessly employed the same attention-grabbing tactic in the title of this blog!)

  1. Public Fear

Of course, the reason why such media scaremongering has been so effective is because many members of the public are truly fearful of what might happen if police forces are over-exposed to the market. While barely a day passes without some form of public outrage directed towards instances of police malpractice or incompetence, at a deep level the average citizen does hold the idea of the police close to their heart. Generations of children have grown up being instructed by their parents to dial ‘999’ if ever they find themselves in imminent danger. Uniformed police officers give talks in schools to educate young people about the protective role of the police in a civilized society. ‘Cops’ are frequently depicted as the ‘good guys’ in pursuit of the ‘bad guys’ in popular television and cinema. All of which serve to inculcate the benevolent liberal conception of the police into our cultural make up. Privatising – or more accurately outsourcing – this core public service understandably sparks fear and anxiety among the public. This makes the task of senior police officers even harder. A fearful public spurred on by a scaremongering media is not an easy audience to persuade.

  1. Scepticism in the senior ranks

While the Home Office exerts significant influence over the direction of police policy, Chief Constables – and now Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) – nevertheless enjoy considerable autonomy when weighing up different policy options. The enduring principle of constabulary independence means that, if they want to, the 43 police forces can do things in 43 different ways. So it has been with outsourcing. Some have embraced outsourcing, others have rejected it outright. Why? Certainly there are structural factors at play. Some forces have more access to council tax revenues than others do, providing some insulation from central government budget cuts, and making radical policy responses less necessary. Some have more ‘fat to trim’ from their bureaucracies than others do, meaning more savings can be made through internal rationalisation. However, there is another key factor. Many senior police officers are simply not comfortable with – or are actively hostile towards – a greater role for the private sector. Not only have they gone through the same processes of childhood socialisation as every other citizen, but in their adult careers they have then chosen to embody ideals of the police – they’ve even sworn an oath to the Queen. So they refuse to engage with the market and seek other ways out of their financial dire straits. This means that in some forces outsourcing never enters onto the agenda as a matter of principle. And for those forces that do entertain this option, they are faced with scepticism not only from the public, but from their colleagues too.

  1. Inexperience in contracting out

But let’s assume that there are some forces with a challenging structural context and a senior command group who are prepared to give outsourcing a go – and there are a few – then surely it’s simply a matter of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, right? Not quite. The world of public sector outsourcing is a complex one, especially for an institution which has almost no experience of its intricacies. When putting together a proposal, interested private sector providers will want to know the business processes and unit costs of every single service included in the invitation for tender. However, police forces don’t think in terms of business processes and unit costs. They think in terms of victims and criminals, evidence and arrests. Gathering this information together can therefore be a long and painstaking task of self examination which may never reach a conclusion, especially in such a tricky political environment. This is something that Surrey Police and West Midlands Police found out the hard way when their controversial £1.5 billion outsourcing deal failed to see daylight after years of effort.

  1. Staffing the contract

Just for a minute, let’s say that there are forces with a challenging structural context, a senior command group who are prepared to give outsourcing a go, and who have sufficient knowledge of their business processes and unit costs to put together an outsourcing deal before the media, public and colleagues make such a move politically impossible – and there is in fact only one such force, Lincolnshire – then surely meaningful outsourcing is doable? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it is undeniable that in December 2011 Lincolnshire Police signed a £229 million contract with G4S to deliver 18 services areas – including some on the frontline – over a 10-15 year period. No, in the sense that despite this major transformation in Lincolnshire Police’s organisational structure, some things really haven’t changed that much. This is in part by choice. Lincolnshire Police have been careful to strike a balance between protecting their distinctive public service ethos and reaping rewards from the business process outsourcing expertise of G4S. But it is also in part a consequence of how the contract has been staffed. G4S have not simply replaced Lincolnshire Police staff with G4S staff – indeed, it would be illegal to do so – rather they have inherited the Lincolnshire Police staff already in position through TUPE regulations. This means that, in many instances, the individual responsible for delivering the outsourced service has worked for Lincolnshire Police their entire life and approaches the job in exactly the same as they had done before G4S arrived on the scene. Other than their ID badge which now reads Lincolnshire Police-G4S, not much has changed. Sceptics will no doubt breath a little sigh of relief, for it appears as though their worst fears are not being realised. But for those who are trying to initiate change in the police, it represents just one more barrier to outsourcing.

Dr Adam White is a Lecturer in Public Policy in the Department of Politics at the University of York. Email: adam.white@york.ac.uk


One thought on “5 reasons why it’s difficult to privatise the police

  1. Pingback: BSC Policing Network

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