The Guardian reported that “The breathtaking list of policing activities up for grabs includes investigating crimes, detaining suspects, developing cases, responding to and investigating incidents, supporting victims and witnesses, managing high-risk individuals, patrolling neighbourhoods, managing intelligence, managing engagement with the public, as well as more traditional back-office functions, such as managing forensics, providing legal services, managing the vehicle fleet, finance and human resources”.
The problem is that such reports are fundamentally misleading. The list that The Guardian is referring to appears to be a standard schedule of policing activities referred to in the contract, known as the ‘policing activities glossary’, and the contract explicitly states that “not all of these activities will necessarily be included in the final scope”. As Nick Herbert, Minister for Justice and Policing was quick to point out: "there was absolutely no intention... that private companies will be involved in patrols. Those are core policing functions. This is all about supporting the front line by making sure that the backroom jobs that do that can be done more efficiently”.
It is not just confusion about the scope of contracts that misleads. The terminology is also confusing – as privatisation involves shifting the delivery and funding of a service over to individuals (as happened with gas and telecoms in the 1980s). With these proposals, the funding clearly remains provided by government, and no one is proposing that you only get a police service if you chip in.
What's new here, then? At first glance, not that much. Most of the new contracts will cover activities which some forces have already outsourced, like administrative support on investigations, CCTV tracking, and management of custody suites.
But there are radical elements to the new contracting approach. First, and positively, the police forces involved appear to be moving away from the traditional approach of commissioning tightly specified single services, which should enable service providers to come up with more innovative ways of delivering value to the police. Our work on commissioning has highlighted several examples of innovation as a result of a more collaborative and open contracting discussion, where providers are encouraged to think broadly about how they can offer better value for the taxpayer.
Second, the size of the contracts is far larger than previously, with the contracts being potentially worth as much as £200 million a year. This naturally increases the importance of contractors performing well and requires police forces to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to ensure a smooth transition to a different provider if performance is unacceptable – or, as happened to the social care firm Southern Cross, the provider falls into bankruptcy.
In turn, this raises the question of whether the police service is currently sufficiently skilled in the areas of contract design and management to secure good value for the taxpayer. Our work highlights that not enough has been done to prepare public servants for the extra commissioning implied by the Government’s current reform programme, although there are positive moves such as the creation of the Major Project Leadership Academy. This is not the privatisation of the police – but it is, nonetheless, a departure that requires preparation, careful thought, and skilful execution.