Ask the audience?

Sorry to steal mercilessly from a very well known TV quiz show, but I think the time is coming when the cop’s lifelines are running out. We’ve phoned a friend and consulted mgmt experts in other fields, gone 50/50 and removed some of our ‘luxury’ services (which were anything but) and now we are left with turning to those that we serve. 

There’s a tipping point coming, and if you can’t feel it, then have a look around and listen to what is being said at the top of the service and by those in government. Thee are more cuts in the pipeline no matter who gets elected, and the cops have trimmed to a buzz cut, there’s not much left to go. 

And so, difficult questions are on the horizon. These questions are around what the cops do, what they are seen to do, and what the public can expect. There has already been several talks this week from the Commissioner of the Met and the head of the Superintendent’s association, where there have been frank – but still positive – discussions about what the public can expect from the future. I think that although we can discuss this in a positive way – as there are ways we can innovate and become more efficient – there is a stark reality underneath, that all you get for less, is less.

So what does this ‘less’ look like? Well, for me it looks like change. The salami slicing is over, the overall structures that have remained in place for many years are reaching ultimate stretch. They will break if cut anymore, so it is likely that the structures will shift and the functions will change. Many will discuss refusal of attendance in some instances, and this may be appropriate due to the ‘mission creep’ that has beset the service, but be under no illusion, there’s a lot of risk in that there creep. Those decisions are not easy. Others may discuss emergency services amalgamation, and in places this may work, but the ill-fated Fambulice as it was dubbed, just won’t work. If people bemoan a lack of training for frontline practitioners now (and they do, justifiably), how can you expect them to take on further responsibility?

Whoever makes these decisions has to be incredibly brave, and they then bear the brunt of the risk associated with it. Leadership is hard won and hard to maintain, so although some may make the leap at the head of the service because they are brave people, should they be the ones giving Chris Tarrant the answer to the million pound question?

Several years ago the PCC function was introduced as a means of affecting accountability and increasing democratic participation. We could discuss the efficacy of such a measure for some time, with detractors and supporters putting forward equally valid views. Currently, they are in place for the foreseeable and are responsible for scrutinising the policing function and providing a conduit from those that call the cops, to the cops themselves. Similarly, Scotland is working on developing their democratic accountability and participation, and are operating under the belief that the public are far brighter than they are given credit for. I think that this is a valid view, so is it possible to expect more real engagement from the PCC’s to help with this million pound question? The function is there, so why not?

The cops, like many public/private services, are still wrestling with command and control leadership. And it is the misunderstanding around the ‘control’ of information and policy that may be the sticking point for this shift towards participation. “Surely, we must know better, when it comes to deploying police resources? We know our business and we know what works,” may be the rebuttal. What does this assume? It assumes that the people that use and feel the benefit of the service don’t know what they ‘really’ want, and that the cops are far better placed to make that choice.

This may be true. But why? Is it true because the information the public need to make an informed choice isn’t there? Is it true because the democratic representation from PCC’s resembles more broadcast than engagement?  Is it there because the structures have always assumed ‘control’ of info exists within the cops, and that having control is a good thing?

***

I recently read, ‘PR is Dead’ by Robert Phillips. It’s a great book, but many will say that it’s content is not applicable to the police. On the contrary. It discusses a paradigm shift from companies being in control of their information and spinning it accordingly, to the control falling to the citizen. Social media is forever changing the landscape that we live in. The debate is public, bad news is aired immediately, and it is taken and distributed with abandon. You can’t control that, and trying is futile. Companies that are developing better ways to allow customers control of their choices, and constantly learning from them, are performing far better than those that still believe in spinning the truth. Honesty is the best policy, because then the decisions are collective, and not a futile attempt at control over something that is well and truly alive. I have heard on many occasions, ‘We don’t want to set hares running.’ Unfortunately, there’s an organised sports event in the meadow and they are running the marathons and sprints as we speak…

***

Why the deviation? It’s simple. Is it time to ‘Ask the Audience?’ The PCC’s may be just the people to do it… If the police lay out the information about what they do, how they divide up their service, and the demand they receive, it just might be possible that the public – being brighter than they are often given credit for – may help inform the tougher decisions. This does two things:

  1. It gives the public a greater understanding around what the cops do and the difficult choices they have to take.
  2. It manages the expectations about when they should/shouldn’t call for assistance because their decision is better informed.

How does this happen? It happens with the Internet, and social media, and it happens through real conversation. Broadcasting stuff is a one way street, and it implies that the function of social media is one way. Well, it’s not, it’s about networks, and conversations, and empathy and debate. Embracing it and using it to offer real and honest debate with the public may just be the beginning of a shift in leadership. Heroic leadership and the all-knowing super human is not a model that chimes with a vibrant platform like Facebook or Twitter. The public want a voice in this discussion and it is possible to actually go looking for it…

Asking the Audience may just result in that million pound jackpot where unnecessary demand falls and the public have realistic expectations about what it is the cops can really do in an age of austerity. Let’s ask Chris, we did pretty well to get this far without running out of lifelines, didn’t we?

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