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PA OPINION

Reinventing police and private sector partnerships

Police budgets have risen recently after years of reductions. But the Government has ringfenced much of this rise to increase the number of officers, and more budgetary pressure is on the horizon. So, is now the time to seek better ways to partner with the private sector to drive efficiencies and improved services?

To find out, we recently invited a group of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) and former and serving police leaders and suppliers to discuss whether the time has come to re-examine private sector involvement in policing. Below is a summary of their collective insights.

Defining the scope of private sector involvement

Defining the benefits of private sector involvement will be key. Policing must determine what it should be responsible for and what should be in the remit of local authorities, healthcare, charities or the private sector. One member of our panel pointed out: “We take on the urgent and dangerous because there’s no one else.”

The scope of what should be on the table for discussions about private sector partnering is likely to be contentious. Some felt it’s best to keep facilities and infrastructure in-house, in the same way HR services are. But another view was that a pick-and-mix approach wouldn’t work: “Any idea of what’s wholly in and wholly out is arbitrary. If police can’t prove they can’t do a simple routine process more efficiently or innovatively than a private provider, why are they doing it?”

Despite these challenges, there was a consensus that the time is right for police to actively reconsider the role for the private sector in policing, to bring efficiencies and innovation.

Engaging industry: how to frame discussions with the private sector

The re-energising of private sector engagement calls for a new type of interaction. There was enthusiasm for developing new types of relationships with the private sector and plenty of good practice for policing to draw upon from adjacent sectors and central government, such as the Sourcing Playbook.

Key to this is a partnership mindset. “It needs to be a partnership, so police professionals are in the process. They’re the customers who know what they want, but they get the professionals doing it: the best of all worlds.” Rather than letting third parties provide all the answers, chiefs should “trust their people. They’ve got good people around them and they know what they need to achieve.”

Chiefs also “need to understand this isn’t a challenge to anyone’s leadership, this is a benefit and can provide the opportunity for investment and innovation in areas that will improve delivery.”

A participant with 30 years’ IT outsourcing experience said a greater understanding of IT procurement among police leaders would provide a better understanding of the improvements that outsourcing could provide.
Another participant added that in-house or external provision wasn’t a binary choice: “Don’t take a specific service-based lens but ask instead what are the characteristics of each element that you want to keep in-house. What is it about those services, does keeping them in-house make delivery better? Where is the comfort zone of working with the private service provider?”

Another asked that the private sector should be open to wide-ranging discussions to explore the potential for co-operation and “give policing a chance to see what might be possible.”

Better costing data will also be critical for chiefs to understand the justification for private sector involvement: “Facts and data matter. The private sector outsources because they receive cost benefits and economies of scale. Companies also have R&D budgets and access to skills that the police can’t match, so it makes sense to tap into that. But we need to understand this on a factual, data-driven footing.”

Agility and adaptability: the contracts and partnerships needed to make relationships work

Some felt new delivery and commercial models would be necessary to bring agility and adaptability. “The rigid notion of historical outsourcing concerns me,” said one participant. “Procurement is often seen as a race to the bottom, with winning companies sometimes offering the lowest price, then recouping money through change control.”

An additional problem is that staff with little legal knowledge often draw up older contracts. “Contractual terms need to be appropriate. Standard contract terms add to the risks of underperformance. You need contracts that cover the specifics of what’s being provided, and the terms need to be unique to every service and situation.”

Another participant who has worked with both in-house and external IT service providers reflected on a successful partnering contract: “The external contract built in benchmarking, which forced a detailed understanding of the cost of delivering the service, even in critical areas such as control rooms and custody suites, not just back office, finances and transactions.

“This is absent in almost every other force I’ve come across. The contract allowed that to be done in a way that’s at least as good a service and for a cost base that was 15 per cent lower than the historic cost, and that later improved in terms of cost differential.”

The way forward: joint ventures and partnerships are likely to be key

The technological threats to society and ever-more sophisticated responses needed to counter them mean the demand for agility and adaptability in public-private sector partnerships is greater than ever. Several participants felt the Home Office should play an active role in shaping such discussions while the Cabinet Office provides an updated structured delivery assessment model.

Often, good ideas come from impromptu discussions following chance meetings, said one participant. Instead, there should be a proper forum for chiefs and PCCs to share issues like IT, resilience and best practice.

To win more support among chiefs and PCCs, however, the discussion “must be about a better police force, doing things more effectively and having more time. If it doesn’t improve their day-to-day position, people won’t support it.”

It’s likely PCCs will get further competency powers soon, allowing them to invest alongside other forces and thus encourage private sector engagement. Most hailed this as a productive platform on which to build co-operation.

As one participant said: “With so many unknowns globally, particularly in terms of inflationary pressures, I would prefer to look at a joint venture between PCCs and private sector partners as they would better enable us to control costs and outcomes.”

It’s time to rethink police and private sector partnerships

The discussions at our roundtable showed senior figures in policing and their suppliers are ready to look again at private sector involvement in policing. Everyone recognises the right approach will create opportunities for efficiencies and innovation. And there was enthusiasm for creating a coalition of the willing to get the best for policing from the private sector.

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