Everyone is agreed that we need radical reform in our public services. There are still years of major cuts to come. Digital technology should be turning everything on its head. Long-standing performance issues seem intractable in some services. In some cases, the demand for services has changed entirely. But there is little radical reform. In fact, most services have not fundamentally changed in nearly 200 years! The key reason for that is that we allow individual professions to be inviolable. Each one not only is above change, but has its own separate service and institution, e.g. the Police versus Fire versus Social Services versus Probation, etc. But if reform cannot cut across these silos, then the options for change are limited. We can make the organisations bigger or smaller. We can contract them out, or bring them back in-house. We can put them online, or deliver them face to face. Often such reforms although within-the-box are massive in scale and create lots of upset – all sorts of restructuring and privatisation, for example. But essentially, the service carries on as before, hopefully doing the same thing a bit cheaper or a bit better. But still the same thing. Real reform has got to give someone the chance to rethink “What outcome does the public want and what’s the best way to deliver it?” The only way to get at this is to overcome the professional silos – partly by merging professions together and partly by getting the public to deliver more of the service themselves. To make such an omelette, lots of eggs need breaking first. By way of example, I want to explore what this could mean for the Police and the professions its works alongside.But first, let’s reflect on what we’re up against.
Why have our public services hardly changed in nearly 200 years? Well, most of them were fundamentally shaped at the time of Queen Victoria taking up the throne. Not even at the end of that long reign, but at the beginning! That is when most of the professions were defined and various demarcations emerged. The police force was created by Robert Peel in 1829. The first fire brigade was set up in Edinburgh in 1824. The first medical degrees were awarded in 1826, by when the apothecaries (who became our GPs) had been defined (1815) and split from the surgeons. The surgeons themselves had made the final split from the barbers in 1745! The first social workers were seen in Paris in 1833. The Institute of Civil Engineers was set up in 1818. I could go on. And on. It’s remarkable that almost two hundred years later – after the development of electricity, telephones, cars, computers, etc – that this professional structure in our public services is almost entirely unchanged. Indeed, not only have the professional boundaries remained fixed, but each profession usually has its own separate service. Our public services are in reality just a set of separate, historic professions. For example, the surgeons and the apothecaries (GPs) are still utterly separate services, in spite of perpetual revolution in clinical technology. The way in which these professions have been funded and politically controlled has changed. The largely charitable basis to public services was gradually replaced by taxpayer funding, culminating in the 1945 welfare state. The largely local control of services was increasingly nationalised to a high watermark in the 1990s and 2000s, but is now being localised again. However, the basic shape of the services today would look surprisingly familiar to those who attended Victoria’s coronation. The turnpike engineers are still there, even if the turnpikes no longer collect the money. So, if we’re looking for radical reforms, it is imperative that look at reshaping the rigid professions and the silos in which they exist.
Police reform is a great case study. The Peelers comprise three in four of the quarter of million police staff. They are still more of a force than a service in many cases. The Police is currently being cut by unprecedented amounts – a 20% reduction in this Parliament, including the loss of thousands of sworn police officers. As in other public services, there is often talk of radical change but only within the police silo. One option is changing the scale – e.g. merging police forces, or creating neighbourhood policing. Another option is to contract out certain services – e.g. managing custody suites. Or to create para-professionals (e.g. PCSOs) who are almost the same as police officers but not quite. Or to, belatedly, grasp the power of IT to make policing more efficient. But what about getting out of the silo?
Firstly, let’s look at integration across professions. The way to do this is to focus on a big outcome we’re trying to achieve. For the Police this might be “Keeping the local area safe and bringing criminals to justice”. Then we should think of all the other professional services which are also trying to deliver this outcome. The next step is the bold one. Rather than exhorting everyone to work together (hasn’t worked so far), we could merge a wide range of other bodies into the Police. Firstly, we could merge the Fire Services into their local Police Forces. Fire Services should not exist as separate bodies. Demand for their services has fallen away. Even in the last decade, the number of incidents they attend has nearly halved. That comes on top of even greater long term decline in fires. And yet the level of resources has grown over much of this period until very recently. The operational utilisation of the 28,000 full time firefighters is between 3 and 10%. There have to be better ways to use the £2 billion plus of spending and the 40,000 staff. Just imagine what the individual Police Service could do if they had control. For example, they could use the down-time of firefighters as PCSOs, rather than just doing fire safety visits. Or they could create a new type of traffic service that attends road accidents, rather than police and fire engines going separately. Or they could find a low cost way to verify that a fire alarm is false (as nearly half are) rather than sending out fire engines and full crews. Similarly, we could take the new National Probation Service (the 6,000 staff who are not being contracted out and who manage the most serious offenders) and put them into the Police. The public expects the Police to be monitoring and managing those at a high risk of offending. So it makes sense. Then, we could be more ambitious still and put Child Protection into the Police. The Police is heavily involved in this area and the core skill sets in child protection are policing skills. This would greatly reduce the infamous problems of multi-agency working in this area. The Police would be accountable for investigating and acting upon threats to children’s safety. Tens of thousands of social workers would be in the Police. We could take other investigation and enforcement services (e.g. tax and benefit fraud, immigration enforcement teams, etc) and put them into the Police. There is a wide range of services that could be added – e.g. road safety teams in highway authorities, street wardens, environmental health officers dealing with noise and disputes, etc. Some will argue for the ambulance service too, but I’m less convinced about that. (Let’s return to what radical reform in health might involve in another post). The point is that we are putting on the table, under the control of one organisation, a big range of services and professions to be reshaped. There would be lots of common overheads to rationalise (HQs, vehicles, IT systems, offices, etc). But more importantly, it would be a chance to reshape the professions. By putting all these previously separate candles into the melting pot, there’s the chance to reshape the wax into new forms. This might be a large group of white collar investigators (for fraud, cyber crime, intelligence gatherers, etc). Or a new service to investigate and manage the troubled families, who blight communities, swamp the justice system and also endanger their own children. Or specialised functions for preparing court cases or customer contact. By pooling the resources, there would be the chance to prioritise resources for public safety and bringing people to justice – to decide what matters most to a local area at anyone time, e.g. fire threats, prolific offenders, overstaying illegal immigrants, knife crime, children at risk, etc. And of course this should be a way to save lots of money.
The second strand of reform is to give the public a greater role in delivering the services, rather than leaving it as the preserve of professionals. This gets straight into the Big Society debate. The cynics may well say “But surely, if there’s one area where the Big Society doesn’t work it is protecting the public and bringing criminals to justice?” In fact, it is one of the most developed areas. Let’s look at what already exists. We have 19,000 Special Constables (albeit down from well over 30,000 40 years ago). There are 12,000 Retained Firefighters who respond to emergencies as and when needed. St John’s Ambulance has 44,000 volunteers attending public events. Beyond this, there are 236 lifeboat stations manned by volunteers, alongside 48 mountain rescue teams. In fact, given this evidence, I wonder how there is any room for cynicism about the Big Society? This is it. Given the proven enthusiasm, what else could be done in this scenario? At its simplest, we could boost the numbers, e.g. doubling the numbers of Special Constables. Then we should change the balance between full-time and retained firefighters, to have a lot more of the latter, as recommended in the Knight Review. We could create a massive Police Cadet Service, to mirror what we have for each of the Armed Forces, engaging our young people. Then we could tap into the huge number of Silver Fox volunteers, who could use their retired skills (as accountants, as administrators, etc) to be non uniformed Specials helping in desk roles. As the new professional groupings begin to emerge from the melting down of the old, there could be big new volunteer opportunities – e.g. being mentors to the troubled families or prolific individuals. Or new local watch volunteers – e.g. to check out false alarms or to monitor high risk premises for illegal immigrant employees.
Grasping the potential of such radical reforms requires three key ingredients. Firstly, some disruptive technologies. This area has plenty – the new analytics are transforming intelligence, GPS systems track masses of activity, social media are becoming the norm, etc. (I am looking forward to Policy Exchange’s “Smart on Crime” report). Secondly, there is a need for strong leadership. There is no point putting a range of Victorian services into a single organisation unless someone is prepared to break down the barriers. Indeed, local authorities are the one multi-disciplinary public body already. But rarely are the professional silos mixed. They just co-exist. But the services going into the Police in this scenario now often have very strong leaders, who have been implementing major change in their own silo. For example, most police forces have made their cuts faster and deeper than they needed to. The leadership cadre exists. And thirdly, there is a need for a local democratic figure to take the tough decisions and to set the local priorities for the newly merged organisation. We now have that in the Police and Crime Commissioners. This bigger remit should make that job even more important and contested at future elections.
So if we are up for radical reform, we need to create some fresh opportunities for our public service leaders to reshape the professions. That means upsetting a lot of people. It also means acting boldly and with speed. The sooner the new opportunities are created through imaginative mergers, the sooner we will get the most effective cuts in spending and the most inspiring improvements in performance. The Police and its related services is just one area to be reshaped. I was going to say that it’s time to move on from Victorian Public Services. But I was recently working in Australia when I walked into a very different debate about “Victorian Public Services”. People wearing badges saying “Proud to Deliver Victorian Public Services” offered me a brochure titled “Victorian IT Strategy for Public Services”. Thoroughly confused, it was politely explained that the people of Melbourne are Victorians. So perhaps it’s best to avoid confusion and just hope that we change quickly enough to cancel the impending bicentenary celebrations of our enduring professions.