Setting political directions

Prompted by a Twitter discussion I’ve been thinking about our ideal of political involvement in delivering public services, and our actual experience of it.  The topic was Policing and the value in elected governance.  Clearly the ideal would be that politicians set direction; identify what has to be achieved and then trust those charged with delivering that outcome with doing it.  The direction comes from the democratic mandate.

In practice that rarely happens.  Media headlines are centred around inputs and activities, portraying these as proxies for delivering outcomes; policemen on the beat and criminals locked up, regardless of the crime.  The drivers of crime reduction don’t suit tabloid headlines; crime prevention, timely investigation and sentencing, appropriate sentencing, enabling offenders to break out of the cycle of crime and use of non-state and restorative justice.

After thirteen years of a Labour government we’re promised lots of change after regime change, things will be ”different” under new leadership.  The Labour manifesto promised more of the same; centralised targets, increased authoritarianism and an obsessive desire to measure everything.  The Tory manifesto that we saw today doesn’t fill me with much confidence either.  A peculiar mix of grand strategy and micromanaged detail.

A key point from today’s announcements that I do quite like is the idea of is the concept of democracy in policing governance.  Clearly lots more detail needed around the relationship between the elected commissioner and the Chief Constable but in principle someone responsible for making investment decisions about local issues according to local needs has to be a good thing.

Some thoughts on what’s needed to make it work:

  • The commissioner needs to have responsibility for policing, judicial systems and penal systems – Reducing crime is about more than uniforms on the ground.
  • The commissioners term of office needs to be long enough to demonstrate change – Reducing crime takes time.
  • The commissioner needs to be focused on outputs and outcomes – Recidivism, education of offenders, employment rates.
  • There needs to be a recognition that punishment need not involve imprisonment – There is value in non-state justice and restorative justice.

I’m not confident.  Reducing crime, reducing recidivism and exploiting non-state systems don’t suit simplistic, sound-bite, messages to the electorate.  Increasing democracy is fine in theory but the inevitable differences in investment decisions will invite central government interference in the local decision making.  We see it in the health sector and there are no indicators that a Tory regime will be any less willing to impose central solutions in response to tabloid headlines about postcode lotteries.

Cynical, yes.  But at least I’m less likely to be disappointed after any impending regime change.

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