In the media

Between a ROCU and a hard place?

By Richard Davis, Matt Slade

Police Professional

26 March 2021

This article was first published in Police Professional

The ROCU network’s position in the serious and organised crime system sees it squeezed between the rock of local influence and the hard place of national expectation. Richard Davis and Matt Sladesay it is time for greater collaboration and collective action to remove inconsistencies and deliver more than a sum of its parts.

Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) were created in 2009 and “are a vital part of the national response to serious and organised crime (SOC)” as recognised in the Government’s SOC Strategy. Today, there are nine formal ROCUs, which sit alongside the National Crime Agency (NCA) and local forces to provide a ‘whole system’ response to SOC, which is estimated to cost the UK at least £37 billion a year. ROCUs have been key components in many recent operational successes, including Operation VENETIC – UK law enforcement’s response following the multi-national infiltration of a command and communication platform for the criminal marketplace – which led to the seizure of millions of pounds of drugs and illicit cash.

However, there have been numerous reports, reviews and inspections over the past decade which have identified seemingly intractable obstacles at the regional level.

Most recently, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) concluded its second inspection into the effectiveness and efficiency of ROCUs and, while recognising the progress made, it is clear the desired transformation has not happened and further efforts are needed.

The pressure for reform will not diminish as new calls for ROCUs to ‘step up and step in’ are made all the time, including Dame Sara Thornton’s recent rallying cry in the policing press in her role as the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

Without significant change the ROCUs will become less effective and will require increased investment in new operational capabilities to counter SOC threats. In addition, real-time funding reductions are expected across law enforcement as the Government looks to address the budget deficit resulting from its Covid-related spending.

Now is the time, therefore, to re-think how the ROCUs operate collectively – with each other and partners – to optimise the UK’s regional response to SOC and further demonstrate their value. This will require the ROCUs to organise to remove inconsistencies and speak with a single voice through:

• Collectively driving immediate improvements across all ROCUs to better demonstrate value for money;

• Enhancing collaboration with partners to provide greater capacity and capability; and

•Engaging nationally to drive funding, resourcing and governance transformation to deliver more than the sum of its parts.

Collectively driving immediate improvements across all ROCUs to better demonstrate value for money

HMICFRS identified numerous inconsistencies across the ROCUs due to the lack of a practical national oversight framework, with these having the potential to undermine national and regional tasking and coordination. Similarly, it calls for more to be done to ensure there is a consistent structure and leadership across the ROCU network to effectively tackle the threat from SOC.

The resulting recommendations give ROCUs a clear view of why change is needed and what needs to change. How this is achieved is the real challenge though, given ROCUs do not control all the levers required to deliver change.

Where ROCUs can act now to drive changes are those areas that are within their control – to improve the return on investment from current spend, and enhance the credibility and momentum required to enable system-wide reform by:

• Developing a national ROCU vision and strategy, which sets the direction of travel for tackling SOC at the regional level, in alignment with the wider Home Office, SOC and NCA strategies;

• Designing a national ROCU blueprint and roadmap, which guides the change required across the ROCU network – building in greater consistency in everything from performance reporting to tasking; and

• Leveraging and developing national ROCU governance to drive join-up, speak with a single ROCU voice and deliver the change required.

Enhance collaboration with partners to provide greater capacity and capability

If action across ROCUs to drive consistency addresses the ‘horizontal’ of regional collaboration, action is also needed ‘vertically’ with the NCA and local forces.

Again, HMICFRS identifies challenges here from anomalies in governance and tasking that mean the NCA and ROCUs are less effective at prioritising and resourcing the highest threats. It also found limitations in regional tasking due to ROCUs lacking the mandate to task the ROCU’s constituent forces.

Most capabilities required to tackle SOC today, such as data exploitation and specialist covert collection capabilities, exist across the local, regional, national and international ‘Homeland Security’ landscape. Improvements in tasking across the SOC system have been made in recent years, which provides the much-needed mechanism for partners to collaborate where capacity and capability gaps exist. However, many of these capabilities remain fragmented with cultural, process, policy and technological barriers often constraining the ability to share capabilities.

Understanding what capability gaps exist and where capabilities owned by partners can help plug gaps is the first step to overcome some of these barriers. This encourages collaboration to find the most affordable way of working together to deliver whole system outcomes.

Much progress has been made in counter-terrorism policing (CTP) to address a similar challenge. CTP and intelligence agency partners routinely share capabilities and work collaboratively to provide economies of scale, flexibility and resilience to protect the UK public from terrorism. The key to success is starting small and scaling fast.

Full-scale collaboration and interoperability cannot be achieved overnight and so the ROCU network needs to define which capabilities it can easily share now to provide a foundation from which to scale.

Engaging nationally to drive funding, resourcing and governance transformation

HMICFRS reserves its strongest concern for the lack of a clear long-term funding model for ROCUs and the accompanying uncertainty, which among other things makes it harder to recruit and retain skilled staff and develop the specialist capabilities needed. This makes the ROCU network less effective than it could be.

The largest funding source for each ROCU comes from the constituent local forces, which means a ROCU’s performance focus is targeted in that direction, potentially leading to local prioritisation over regional and national threat, risk and harm.

Taking the steps above and speaking with a single, clear voice will strengthen the position of the ROCU network when making a case for change nationally.

Currently, much focus is given to the differences between ROCUs, which exacerbates the existing parochialism. Collaborating on what unites, rather than what divides, is therefore critical in building mutual trust, accelerating collaboration and engaging across the system on a collective front.

Existing governance routes with the Home Office, National Police Chiefs’ Council and others need to be maximised alongside ‘set piece’ opportunities, such as spending reviews, and large-scale considerations, such as the Government’s recently published Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy [the Integrated Review] to address these age old challenges.

Breaking the impasse and maintaining the advantage over SOC at the regional level

And so, it is clear the ROCU network continues to find itself between a rock and hard place. This is driven primarily through its relative position in the middle of the SOC system, which leaves it subject to dynamic, multi-dimensional and often conflicting pressures.

However, collectively driving immediate improvements across all ROCUs, enhancing collaboration with partners to provide greater capacity and capability, and engaging nationally to drive funding, resourcing, and governance transformation are practical steps the ROCU network can take to break the current impasse and maintain the advantage over the most serious and organised criminals at the regional level.

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