At Public-i we’ve started talking to a number of police authorities, the agencies that will be replaced by the offices of police and crime commissioners (PCCs) when they are elected on the 15th of November this year (2012).
The PCCs will take over responsibility for overseeing 41 police forces on the 16th of November, signalling a radical reshaping of how policing is governed in England and Wales.
The remarkable thing about all this is just how little is known publicly about the PCCs – how they’ll look, what they’ll do and what it means for our democracy. It’s the first time that we’ll have the chance to hold an individual to account at the ballot box for a single service, but there’s been hardly a ripple of interest in the mainstream media. I think there might be at least two reasons for this:-
- It’s hard to talk about something that doesn’t exist: While all staff from the police authorities transfer automatically to the PCCs, it’s then up to these new folk to decide what happens to them (there are only two statutory roles the PCC must employ – a ‘head of paid staff’ and a chief financial officer).
- No one gets excited about an electoral race before it has started. And, since just a handful of candidates have confessed an interest in running, it’s hardly surprising that there’s little press attention on what PCCs will do, or indeed an indication from those who’d like to take the role on what they expect from the PCC and its office.
All this is a challenge for police authorities, who are charged with trying to put some flesh on to the bones. This is even harder because it’s a step into the unknown. Police authorities are attempting to shape offices for an unknown elected person without the same statutory framework they have under the current system – it’s not just a change of function, it’s a seismic shift in culture, politics and accountability.
That doesn’t mean that police authorities aren’t seriously thinking about how to deal with this – far from it. We’ve spoken to some brilliant people who are thinking very seriously about the responsibilities the PCC has and how these can be met by the offices they’re creating…
Understanding what PCCs will (and won’t) do
What the Home Office makes clear is that the PCCs will ‘hold the police to account’ on behalf of the people; they won’t run the police! The Home Office envisages the PCCs as the eyes and ears of the public – and its conscience – in relation to police matters. Obviously, this makes engagement a key part of what the PCCs will do.
The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (2011) requires that PCCs consult with the victims of crime in setting their local policing priorities – and there is a strong emphasis on PCCs making sure they are acting in accordance with the wishes of the communities they serve. How individual PCCs choose to do this will differ considerably, but it’s clear that when the commissioners sit down at their desks on the 16th of November they must be able to establish links throughout their communities very quickly.
I’ve created a crib sheet that says a lot more about the PCCs, which you can read here.
Our chief executive, Catherine Howe, has started to set out her thoughts on the establishment of the PCCs’ offices, emphasising the importance of transparency, democracy and – of course – engagement. She has proposed four principles:-
- The office should own the democracy
- Be open by default
- Create a space where the PCC can listen to the relevant debate and connect with the public
- Use really good consultation tools to ensure that decisions are fact – rather than media – based
The potential of PCC engagement
All four principles present challenges for an office that won’t exist officially until later this year – but, as Catherine notes, they are also opportunities. While there will be work to establish the boundaries between the police force’s engagement responsibilities and those of the PCC, there is potential to establish much stronger links (via the office of the PCC) between communities and the police.
PCCs will have the right to publish information they consider necessary for the assessment of the PCC and the chief constable, offering the opportunity for the PCC’s office to become stores of information to help the public understand more about how their area is policed and the resources committed to it. Inevitably, this would lead to a debate and a desire for direct engagement from both the police and the PCC – at which the PCC and its office will be central.
Critically, for the PCCs to be successful, they will need to quickly develop a sophisticated approach to engagement that recognises where communities are, the significant voices within those communities, and how best to talk to them. While the Home Office has suggested that PCCs may benefit from support from partner agencies – such as councils, who have their own ‘mature’ engagement mechanisms – we know from our work helping