We have been doing work around the new police and crime commissioner (PCC) posts and we are working with the APCC and others to try and develop some of the guidance that we think PCCs will need when they take up office. Our interest is in examining what kind of democratic relationship the new commissioners will have with the public and we are suggesting it should be both open and digital by default – you can read more about this here and we are running a couple of events in the autumn to talk about this a bit more.
The creation of the PCC is not the only change – these posts will be supported and scrutinised by new police and crime panels and this post looks at how these could work. Andrew has written a really good overview of what powers they will have – I want to look at how they could chose to exercise them.
There are both positive and negative reasons for thinking about PCCs – in a positive sense they are an extension of this unique opportunity to redesign local democracy. More negatively they risk missing this opportunity if we just see them as reformatted police authorities. The PCPs will have great pull-back to the forms of traditional local government – but to let them do so undermines the chance to create a new kind of relationship with the public.
Where police authorities existed not only to hold the chief constable to account but also to represent the views of the public to the police, the role of the police and crime panel is more strongly focused on scrutiny of the PCC with less of a direct mandate to interact with the force itself. Importantly, the PCPs will not, as a matter of course, be consulting with the public but instead will need to scrutinise the engagement and consultation activity of the PCC to ensure that the interests of local people are being adequately taken into account.
PCPs should have a small but essential strategic role in ensuring the effectiveness of the PCC. The risk is that they duplicate the activity of the new office in seeking to recreate information about local priorities. It will be vital, not to mention cost effective, for these two offices to work co-operatively and for the PCP to add value to the democratic conversation rather than recreating the (often limited) engagement delivered by police authorities in the past.
I have two suggestions as to how we could do this:
- Hold the conversation with the public in public. By being open by default, with data and with discussions, we make it possible for all stakeholders to share the evidence base and to create additionality through interpretation as opposed to arguing contradictions in fact. This shouldn’t be difficult to do in a brand-new system – and I have written a bit more about this here.
- Explore more engaging forms of scrutiny by the PCPs. Set up special commissions and involve laypeople and experts. Take these out and about and hold meetings about specific issues using agendas that are set by the public not with a standard fixed format. We know that it is easier to mobilise response and engagement on single issues so use this fact to drive engagement. There are many examples of excellent practice in the scrutiny process which could be brought to bear here.
The point is that we don’t need to be constrained by the pre-existing model. This doesn’t ignore the best practice that has gone before but it does open up the possibility of designing something that allows us to create 21st century best practice which is framed by today’s behaviours and technological capabilities.
Creating a more open conversation with the public has a number of advantages, particularly if you can do so online, in that it builds both trust and reach. It should help reduce duplication of effort and should enable us to engage more effectively with subject-experts in the community.
However, there are downsides. The obvious one is how to handle inappropriate content from the barmy to the downright offensive. Those of us who have worked with online communities for a while are more relaxed about this risk than newcomers. We have good reason to be, as experience and evidence show that most communities self-regulate after a relatively short period of time and we can, if necessary, enforce the rule of law in extreme cases (there have been some interesting examples of this from the Olympics). If designed correctly an online community can be a fantastic self-sustaining asset. My personal research interest is in how to build these kinds of civic spaces and you can read lots more if you are inclined here.
The less obvious downside is the fact that this kind of openness would make it difficult for politicians to avoid the kind of party politics that many voters find inappropriate and disengaging – particularly at a local level. By putting this conversation into the public realm there will either be an absence where it is clear these conversations are taking place elsewhere or the public will see the tradeoffs that are inevitably made in a party political process.
There is, of course, a different scenario where a more independent and localist kind of politics starts to emerge as a result of the re-landscaping of local government caused by the PCC/PCP change. This is not an unfounded possibility, as there are a number of independent candidates standing and many (though sadly not all) of the party candidates I have spoken to acknowledge this change as an opportunity to make local politics work differently. However a lot of work and focus will be needed to avoid a snap back to old formats and behaviours.
The PCCs will be operating in a wholly new environment that will provide constant reminders of how different this is to the previous system – however similar they may think it right now. For the PCPs we will need a much more conscious focus on doing things differently, as they are also a vital part of this new opportunity.