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Thursday, 30 April 2009
Hitting the single target: Police measure of confidence
Very soon, there will be only one national target set for the police services by the Home Secretary. The precise form of words is still under discussion but the implication is clear: the police service will be measured according to how much confidence the public have in what the police do for them, their families and their communities.
The Home Office review of the British Crime Survey and crimes recorded by the police (Crime in England and Wales 2007/08: A summary of the main findings) states that the “proportion of people who think their local police do a good or excellent job was higher in 2007/08 (53%) than in 2006/07 (51%)”. The trend is in the right direction, but there is some way to go. Indeed if one takes a long term perspective, there is a long way to go. The Royal Commission on the Police in 1962 stated that “no less than 83 per cent of those interviewed professed great respect for the police, 16 per cent said they had mixed feelings, and only 1 per cent said they had little or no respect”. Perhaps recent events including those surrounding the death of Ian Tomlinson will continue to have an impact as well. The police are under scrutiny as never before.
The purpose of this piece is to contribute to the debate around how the police service will meet this new challenge. I begin with suggesting a range of questions that each local force and authority will, in my view, need to address in order to meet the challenges of this new target (indeed many are probably already addressing many of these). This article then goes on to propose a set of issues that might to be considered in order to create a robust strategy around delivering on this new target.
Not only is much of policing is done in partnership with other agencies but the idea of a single confidence measure may well gain wider appeal amongst other government departments. Hence these are questions for several agencies (such as local authorities) to ponder upon.
What do we mean by ‘confidence’? Do we ask whether the public have confidence in the fire service, or the NHS, or local children’s services? Why do we ask this question, particularly, of the police? What is it in the nature of policing that makes confidence so important? How is satisfaction different from confidence? Is trust the same as confidence? Can a citizen be confident but not satisfied or vice versa? In what aspects of policing will the public be expected to express confidence?
What do we mean by the ‘public’? The police service is there for people whether they are visiting, studying or working in a place and not just for those who have a residence there. If the measures of confidence only research (permanent) residents then the result is likely to be out of kilter with the full set of citizens who use a locality. Moreover will the public surveyed only include adults? What about young people, of all ages, who are often the victims of crime. How will their confidence be assessed? Will the public get an opportunity to influence how their confidence is assessed?
Do the police serve ‘customers’ or ‘citizens’? Does the police service expect or indeed wish for members of the public to be active or passive? In order to achieve safer communities, how much do citizens need to be engaged as well as consulted? What happens if the citizens say that to have confidence they only want to be passive recipients of the service? How has the police profession (and other ones) contributed towards a culture of passivity amongst many communities?
How deep does this confidence have to go? If the public are to have confidence in the police, especially the policing that they see being practised by frontline staff, how much confidence must those staff and officers, in turn, have in their managers and governance bodies? How much does a bond of confidence need to connect (and be seen to connect) the Chief Constable, the Chair of the Police Authority, and everyone else working in and with the local police service? What will need to be the balance of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ efforts to assure and increase levels of public confidence?
Why will some forces inevitably have higher levels of public confidence than others? How much of this will be down to local demography, the local incidence of crime, policing practice, local events in the previous period, local media coverage and a panoply of various unknown factors? How much will the reputation of a particular force have on the levels of confidence and how will this be affected by reports of unprofessional behaviour? What are the ‘levers’ within the control of the force and authority that can be pulled to achieve improvements in confidence? How much does the perception of fairness affect how much confidence the public have in their local police?
What can the police service learn from other services that have high levels of public confidence? Which are these other services or professions? Are there any comparators? What are the practices that lift some services to high levels of confidence and which practices reduce confidence? How will the good practice be instituted within the service and what can be done to reduce the likelihood of damaging practices? How well does the current tripartite governance structure policing in the UK contribute towards high public confidence? Are any changes needed? Would a greater body of ‘evidence based practise’ and a higher level of education among police officers (to ‘say’ foundation degree level) make any difference at all?
If ‘every contact leaves a trace’ is an idea which impacts on public confidence too, how can the thousands of daily interactions between the service and the public be managed? Since single incidents can evidently have huge negative impacts, what can be done to ensure that such incidents do not occur? Or if that is not possible, what can be done to reduce the likelihood of such incidents or mitigate them? Is it possible to inoculate public opinion against the occasional damaging incident, and if so, how?
In my view this new target is not just another target. It is an outcome measure of a very different order since it is dependent not just on what the police service is achieving (reductions in crime, antisocial behaviour and so forth) but also on how the police service operates, and, moreover, is perceived to function. It is holistic in that it asks the public, to assess overall their local police service. It connects forces together since an incident in another force (or even another country) may impact on another. (For example there were demonstrations outside Brixton Police station when news of Rodney King in Los Angeles was broadcast). Moreover whilst the police play the most critical role in tackling crime, much of the responsibility for preventing and dealing with crime lies in the hands of local authorities, the wider criminal justice system and other players such as voluntary organisations. The actions of these partners may well impact upon how much confidence the public have in the police service. Finally, this target is different since it is not based on hard performance data but the collected perspectives of a sample of the public.
The implications of aiming for this target are, therefore, profound and wide. Where traditional performance management has been seeking to manage the activity of individuals and units within the service against the previous basket of targets, this measure does not lend itself to quite the same kind of activity. Instead, a number of activities are worthy of consideration:
As words like ‘public’, ‘confidence’ or ‘trust’ are abstract rather than concrete nouns, it becomes all the more important that time is spent on clarifying the meaning of them. At one level, what is clearly required is a glossary of the key words surrounding this new target, ideally at a national level but certainly at a local one.
More than that is required since just reading or hearing the agreed meaning of a word is not the same as understanding it and making it your own. This points to the need to put in place carefully shaped communication plans that will need to include all members of the police service and beyond to partners. Indeed such plans will need to foster two way communication. Not using the insights gained into what matters to the public by the frontline to help shape overall strategy is missing a huge opportunity.
Leadership will be a critical element in hitting this target. In a world that seems to be becoming increasingly cynical, the importance of visionary, inspirational, empowering and ethical leadership has never been greater. A force wanting to ensure its performance against this target will need to take stock of how it leaders (at all levels) are taking actions, putting in place systems and making statements that accord with the overall goal.
Sir Robert Peel once said that “public opinion is a compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs”. Although the media likes to believe that it merely reflects public opinion and acts an innocent witness to events it is more likely that it influences the views of the public significantly – wittingly or unwittingly. This new target makes the need to have effective relationships with the local and national media even more important. Underpinning this will be the need to keep refreshing the ways in which to give information to the public about crime and disorder in their area. (Although it is vital not to underplay the importance of everyday contact in shaping people’s confidence in the police: “Despite the undoubted importance of media... in informing and even moulding opinions about the police ...personal contact seems likely to remain a key factor in many people’s experiences”. Equally it is crucial not to overplay it (by perhaps assuming that Neighbourhood Policing Teams are the solution): “Research has suggested that for most people the media, not personal experience, is the primary source of information on the police”.)
In part, sustaining and improving public confidence has and will always come about from the dedicated efforts of many thousands of police officers and staff. If those efforts are to be made even more effective, there needs to be research into what works and what does not. It is likely that the public will have the most confidence in a police service that dedicates some of its resources on evaluating and researching good policing and then uses the results. In my view, every force needs a plan for how it will develop more evidence based (alongside intelligence led) practice and so add to the body of professional policing expertise.
The units within which officers and staff are brigaded, the means by which corporate decisions are made, the lines of accountability and the degrees to which people are empowered and enabled to serve the public are all critical ingredients in building and sustaining public confidence. There will be value in reviewing organisational structures – both of forces and authorities to see if they are fit for purpose against this new target. Will forces soon have Assistant Chief Constable (Public Confidence) positions?
As “what you measure is what you get” there are a number of implications to how a force’s existing performance management systems which will need to be redesigned in order to address the new single target. No doubt close linkages will need to be made between the policing pledges, the new measures and how officers & staff are regularly appraised. How should or could the public be involved in appraisals? Indeed how can such appraisals be used to build increasingly levels of trust between the police and their communities?
If organisational culture is ‘the way we do things around here’, how will this culture need to develop in order to meet this target? One suggestion would be conduct an internally led (but outwardly focussed) ‘confidence audit’. The purpose of such an audit would be to assemble in one place a review of all the ways in which the local service hears and responds to what the public say and what various groups of the public think about their local police. The audit would also need to consider how the many common police practices & procedures contribute (or not) towards increased levels of confidence.
Although historical trends indicate that re-building levels of public confidence in the police amongst all parts of society will not be easy, research and practice suggest that it can and will be done. The challenge will be to select the few steps that will make the most amount of difference rather than waste resources on spurious efforts or even counterproductive ones.
Since writing this - I have added another blog post about how to carry out a 'confidence audit'. You can see it here
 http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs08/hosb0708summ.pdf  Extracted from “Trust and Confidence in Criminal Justice: A Review of the British Research Literature” by Bradford, Jackson, Hough & Farrall. November http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1303567 which contains a very useful discussion of this topic.  From “Trust and Confidence in Criminal Justice: A Review of the British Research Literature” by Bradford, Jackson, Hough & Farrall 2008: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1303567  Same source as above.
UPDATE: An edited version of this article was published in Jane's Police Review 11 December 2009 (pp 24 - 25). It was entitled Opinion Poll-icing.
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