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Is the government’s programme for Localism too elastic?
During a week in which we have seen a record low turn out for the election of the new Police and Crime Commissioners (described by the Electoral Commission as a ‘comedy of errors) with the new elected representatives holding a mandate of just between ten and twenty per cent (Telegraph, November 16th 2012), a warning that Ministers and Government departments may remain skeptical about whether localism can enhance economic growth and locally based clinical commissioning still rankles in some quarters (Public Servant, December 2012), what prospect is there for localism?
Last year, the Guardian argued (9th June 2011) that David Cameron’s plans to devolve power from Whitehall to local communities were in disarray and at serious risk of eroding the basic democratic principles of transparency and accountability. It was reporting on the influential parliamentary committee reports. In particular, the Communities and Local Government Committee – Third Report, published 9th May 2011 acknowledged that, on the surface,
“localism is an uncontroversial concept. The large majority of our witnesses were, with some caveats, appreciative of the Government’s intentions, enthused by the prospect of more powers being made available to local authorities, communities, and third sector organisations, and welcoming of more opportunities for citizens to influence how their services are designed and delivered”
The committee also noted that localism was far from a new idea. However, it suggests that the Government’s approach in practice, has thus far been marked by inconsistency and incoherence, not helped by a definition of localism that is extremely elastic. It provided examples as to how this has allowed individual departments to adopt definitions of localism that suit their other policy aims, rather than definitions that are internally consistent or developed in consultation with other stakeholders. Some policy areas remain notably more centralised than others.
There is not universal support for the idea that central government should retreat entirely from local affairs, allowing accountability to local people to replace performance monitoring from the centre (i.e. groups that work with vulnerable members of society).
- To lift the burden of bureaucracy—by removing the cost and control of unnecessary red tape and regulation, whose effect is to restrict local action;
- To empower communities to do things their way—by creating rights for people to get involved with, and direct the development of, their communities;
- To increase local control of public finance—so that more of the decisions over how public money is spent and raised can be taken within communities;
- To diversify the supply of public services—by ending public sector monopolies, ensuring a level playing field for all suppliers, giving people more choice and a better standard of service;
- To open up government to public scrutiny—by releasing government information into the public domain, so that people can know how their money is spent, how it is used and to what effect; and
- To strengthen accountability to local people—by giving every citizen the power to change the services provided to them through participation, choice or the ballot box
The terms ‘Big Society’, ‘localism’, and ‘decentralisation’ have been used inter-changeably. The three core components of the Big Society agenda have been defined by the Government as:
- Empowering communities: giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions and shape their area;
- Opening up public services: enabling charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-owned co-operatives to compete to offer people high quality services;
- Promoting social action: encouraging and enabling people from all walks of life to play a more active part in society, and promoting more volunteering and philanthropy
A quick scan of the news stories on the publicservice.co.uk website today makes quite stark reading. First, one Chief Constable is sacked following an IPCC investigation which has upheld the allegation that the chief lied to the inquiry and bullied staff; second, another Chief Constable is to retire allegedly against a background of the latest damning Hillsborough report; the Met’s acting Commissioner is grilled over the woeful investigation of the phone tapping and a fourth, calls for a national police force.
It is not just the police as public leaders who are subject to increased scrutiny. The Francis inquiry continues in relation to mid Staffordshire Hospital Foundation Trust and the difficulties encountered in leadership during the recent Rochdale report casts a further shadow over public leadership between a number of statutory agencies.
If ever we need collective leadership, that time is now. For too long, the emphasis has been on senior leaders at the top of the hierarchy who direct activity and provide the answers down the organisation. The role of collective leadership is to ask the intelligent questions and allow those with the experience and knowledge to provide the answers. The most important element is to accept constructive criticism and not promote destructive consent. It applies at all levels of public service. Those who are the guardians of our government should not look down upon those who deliver as mere ‘plebs’. It is the collective public leadership that will eradicate the excesses of either individual or organisational ego’s.
How often have we said; “If Only?”
I had occasion today to read a copy of the Times that I had saved from 27th August 2005, exactly seven years ago. The headlines say it all. It brings to mind the importance of public leaders understanding risk and uncertainty. Could this have been avoided? As we look back in 2012 and with the benefit of hindsight, we most certainly would wish so.
Writing in the analysis section of the Business Section of the Times, Gerard Baker reminded readers that Alan Greenspan (then the Chairman of the Federal Reserve) usually plants a small gem of information that gives an important clue to his latest thinking on US monetary policy. He called for higher interest rates to stem the boom in prices and the significant consequences that may happen if the bubble burst. Interestingly, it was pointed out the housing market was of more significance to the economy in the UK than it is in the US.
Seven years later, as we face a financial crisis on both sides of the Atlantic, fuelled by the banking crisis and corporate greed, perhaps the answer today is “I told you so”.
As Charles Handy once said, “Understanding the past is important in understanding the present and predicting the future”. Risk, uncertainty and prediction should be key skills in leaders – and not just public leaders!
At 8.40 this morning I was invited to take part in a live radio debate on BBC Radio Northampton alongside Mr Michael Ellis, Conservative MP for Northampton North and a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee. This followed an earlier broadcast in which a potential Independent candidate for the post of Police and Crime Commissioner in Northamptonshire stated that he was dissuaded from standing because of the politicization of the election and the position (very similar to my own argument outlined in earlier posts).
I acknowledged the benefits of greater public engagement in the policing debate and agreed that such commissioners could bring the public voice into policing in a much more substantive way than before. Predictably, Michael Ellis was in favour of PCCs but could not understand how independent candidates would be disadvantaged. Political parties, he argued are short of funding and said that it was a fallacy that party machinery would line up behind the political candidates. This, I think, is a rather narrow view. As I pointed out, low turnout rates tend to favour traditional party political voters and as the presenter Stuart pointed out, this may well be the lowest turnout of all time. It is not necessarily a case of the public funding the independents campaign, which appeared to be the response to my point, but rather it is about having a level playing field. Only this week, a letter is being handed into No 10 Downing Street on behalf of independent candidates asking for the government to communicate the background of candidates as well as providing information about the vote. The electoral commission have already criticized the government for disenfranchising at least seven million people who cannot access the online information. This is the only information online.
Congratulations to Blair Gibbs and his colleagues at the Policy Exchange (Crime and Justice) who today launch their online website http://www.policeelections.com. As Blair said (The Times Opinion today), “Don’t let apathy rob you of a say on policing”. I agree with his sentiments that “being a commissioner is not a job for any old local politician”. I had a look at the website and searched for the candidates for the job in my home county of Staffordshire. Although I knew that there was no independent, it was quite ominous to see two candidates from the traditional political parties. However, no profile had been provided by either candidate. Interestingly, Joy Garner, a Labour councillor in Stoke-on-Trent who is standing as the Staffordshire PCC did take an active role in a question and answer session at the briefing held with Ed Milliband on the 19th July. Reported rather cynically by the Telegraph and referring to what she described as “The G4S thing” she began gravely:
“The RoboCop films are an extreme example of where privatisation can go madly wrong. This just seems to be the first step.”
Mind you, as reported in the local Staffordshire Newsletter a couple of weeks ago (War of words erupts between Staffordshire Police and Crime Commissioner candidates), the Labour candidate was also critical of her ‘opponents’ technological idea which is to give patrolling officers an iPad.
Not quite the informed approach that we are looking for? C’mon (as they say in Stoke), lets have the real debate.
The biggest change to police governance since the formation of the modern British police service is about to go ahead almost unnoticed by the vast majority of the British public and yet this could strike at the very heart of police independence.
A Newsnight report on the BBC on 19th July 2012 underpinned many of my reasons for deciding not to stand as an independent candidate in my home county of Staffordshire (see Guardian http://t.co/gTPihRMC).
Lord Prescott, candidate for Humberside, concluded a studio debate with Sir Hugh Orde (ACPO President) and Ian Johnstone (former Chief Superintendent and Independent Candidate for Gwent), by saying “lets see how it works” as the discussants debated the inevitable tensions that lie ahead. Not that inspiring for such a radical change to governance!
The central message of the debate seemed to be that the government was making this difficult in terms of engaging the wider public and there is no doubt that the election of political candidates is preferred.
It was interesting that the debate was preceded by a report from the streets of Nottingham, traditionally the city with the highest rates of crime per thousand population in England and Wales. On appointment as one of the ten founding Home Office Regional Directors for the East Midlands in 2000 I worked closely with the Chief Constable at that time, Stephen Green, who had taken on a force that had metropolitan problems but which was funded provincially. Not an easy task and he wasted no time in introducing significant changes which I described at the time as trying to turn an oil tanker in the mouth of a narrow river. At one point, he drew public attention to the problems of nighttime violence in the city and called for greater support from government, the local authority and the licensing industry in regulating the negative impacts of alcohol. The local politicians, incensed by the impact that this may have on the vibrant night-time economy, systematically ‘jumped on the bandwagon’ of critics of the chief constable. My team at the government office researched the problem of crime in Nottingham. This illustrated that it was historical and its causes lay beyond what the chief constable could do in the short term. We even showed that ‘pounds per officer’ in relation to the ‘crime problem’ were woefully short, placing Nottingham second only to North Yorkshire in shortage of resources. The Home Office told me not to release these findings. Pressure continued to mount on the chief constable and, despite my protestations that he was the right person for the job, but needed time, he left his role prematurely. That was also one of the reasons why I decided to leave policing/civil service to join the academic community where my independence of mind could be openly expressed. I was unable to do so as a senior civil servant and given that the role of HORDs is the closest that we have had to PCCs, I am absolutely certain that it will be even more difficult for elected police and crime commissioners to be independent of politics.
As the Newsnight feature illustrates, Nottingham in 2012 seems to be no different as the public on the one hand have no idea about (or seemingly any interest in) the forthcoming elections and the current Acting Chief Constable (‘acting’ no doubt pending final approval by the incoming PCC) Chris Eyres told us that the debate had stopped. The government had spoken and it is his job to make it work. It is significant that Teresa May and Ed Miliband respectively were briefing their political candidates separately.
In May last year, I attended a conference of police chiefs at Philadelphia in the US, accompanying the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police Sir Peter Fahy and other members of his senior leadership team. We had a discussion with some of the most senior chiefs in the US with regard to their experience of political governance (the model that the conservative party has chosen to replicate). One of the major challenges that faced chiefs in the US was described as the ‘management of misery’. This related to the financial conditions and its impact on allocation (and reduction) of resources, pay, conditions and other hygiene factors, whilst coming under increased scrutiny in relation to policing outcomes from politicians.
A second major challenge discussed was that of declining trust. Trust has always been a critical part of policing by consent and community policing both in the UK and the US is its manifestation. It is about coproduction, encouraging a willingness to cooperate and introducing procedures that create legitimacy and cooperation. Police leaders should not be reluctant to involve the community in the creation of public policies and be prepared to seek their views in the development of policing. Many do this well. Thus, the principle of direct accountability to the public through PCCs can build on this. However, the strong sense of political direction, illustrated by the swearing of an allegiance to a political party, could defeat this. Police chiefs in the US felt constrained by the political governance processes and seemed amazed that the UK was about to follow their model rather than the other way around.
Greater community engagement is to be welcomed, but as Lord Prescott told us, we will have to ‘wait and see’.
Well done to Simon Weston for sticking to his principles of altruism and standing down as an independent candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). Caught like a rabbit in the headlights between the powerful political party machinery on both his left and his right at a recent gathering of nominated candidates in London, the small group of independents appeared kettled between the political candidates.
I faced a similar dilemma. After thirty years of active police leadership, including nine years as a both a member of the Inspectorate of Constabulary and then as a Home Office Regional Director, I am well qualified to understand the complexities of police practice and governance. My last six years as an independent academic teaching and researching public leadership across public agencies, principally in healthcare, local government and policing have provided me with that extra dimension to take an objective view of both practice and governance. I intended also to stand as an independent in my home county of Staffordshire. Significant barriers faced me as an individual independent as the nomination processes and procedures emerged albeit in a somewhat piecemeal fashion. The possibility of losing one’s deposit against a probable low turnout and a clear push for political control with all the machinery that supports this made the aspiration less attractive. I thus decided to forego this opportunity.
In principle, the opportunity to enable true public engagement in police governance is to be welcomed. The need to balance the operational autonomy of the police on the one hand and the rights and responsibilities of the wider public on the other is crucial. However, as Lord Scarman said following the riots of the 1980s – which I remember well from my time as a young Constable in Bristol – ‘no politician should tell a police officer what to do or which persons to arrest’. This must still hold true. The real danger of the current police reform is to over politicize the police; this appears to be happening with a required ‘swearing of allegiance’ to a political party by the impending incumbent Commissioners.
Good governance requires new public leadership, not new public management with the outcome of public leadership represented by the understanding, creation and demonstration of public value. Democratic legitimacy is not just about political leadership; it is also about community leadership. Transparency, independence and public engagement should be both the means and the ends; these values should not be up for debate. It should be about a focus on real life problems and how to solve them; it is not about political expediency and being seen to be doing something – it is about doing something. The value of policing extends beyond just the police; it is a collective endeavor linked to a collective vision not individual or party political agendas. Partnership should be central to this and not just seen as a ‘bolt-on’; joint activity linked to both shared (across institutions and the community) and distributed (within institutions) leadership represents a coactive and not just a proactive or reactive response to policing problems.
Public leadership is about adaptive leadership, tackling the wicked problems that face society the resolution of which lies beyond the gift of one organization or one commissioner; the tendency is to take a wicked problem and then apply a tame solution and then wonder why this doesn’t work!
We need a debate about the future of policing and this should not restrict the apolitical from taking part.
New Public Leadership
The role of a leader is to ask the intelligent question and then allow others to come up with solutions. It is about developing a collective vision based on shared values and joint activity. This is particularly important for public leaders. The aim of this blog is to encourage a debate about the key challenges for public leaders