Two years ago, Police Professional explored why outsourcing has been so relatively unsuccessful in the police service when it is so universally recognised as adding value elsewhere. We spoke to Neil Amos, the author of the article, and police and crime commissioner David Lloyd to see if any progress has been made since then.
In October 2021, Police Professional published an article by Neil Amos, Justice and Policing lead at PA Consulting, which asked the question “Is it time for the police to think again about outsourcing?” He argued that policing could learn from industry, where organisations have a long history of outsourcing non-core functions to allow leaders to concentrate on their core business. This prompted an immediate response from Hertfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner, David Lloyd, who responded with an article of his own, “Stick to the knitting,” published a few weeks later. David applauded the first article and expressed the hope that it might stimulate a debate across policing about the role of the private sector.
As the second anniversary of these articles approaches, Police Professional spoke to David and Neil and asked them if the case for change was still as strong, if they had seen progress and what they would like to see happen next.
Neil Amos (NA)
I’ve been working in and around policing as a consultant and before that at the Home Office. I like to think that I’ve developed a good knowledge of the sector and an affinity for the people in it. That connection has made me especially sad to see the obvious struggles that policing is going through at the moment. I’m pleased to see the way that the service is tackling some of its most challenging issues head-on, but I have a sense that police leaders are still somewhat overwhelmed by the scale and volume of difficulties they must deal with.
That’s what prompted the comparison with industry: companies have learned that it is usually easier to define a smaller range of things that they want to be really good at, rather than try and excel in too many markets or delivering too many services. The police have limited scope to opt out of delivering specific services but there are other ways of making life easier and not be required to excel at everything from within their own workforce.
David Lloyd (DL)
…I guess that’s the point that resonated with me. Neil is right to say that the police have very limited scope to say that they want to opt out of delivering specific services – the recent controversy over police attendance at mental health incidents is a good example of the outcry that can follow any perception of a scaling back of service levels. But I reflected that the CEO of a FTSE 100 company has a massive spread of responsibilities – not dissimilar to that of a chief constable – but the CEO is much more likely to spend their time focusing on the organisation’s core business, leaving repetitive, stable, transactional tasks to others. It’s what has led to a very high take-up of outsource offerings across industry in areas like finance, payroll, pensions, catering, facilities management, HR, estates, fleet, IT and much more. Of course, as both articles acknowledge, there has been some progress in the sector, but I still feel that policing could help itself by being bolder and going further, faster.
Have you seen much take-up of this approach in the intervening months since your articles were published?
DL: Neil asked me to get involved in a round table soon after the articles were published, to explore the issues further. It was a very interesting conversation with excellent contributions from senior policing stakeholders. I then followed this up with one-to-one interviews with several Police and Crime Commissioners. I found that there was plenty of support for the idea of a greater role for the private sector to enable chief officer teams to focus on core business, but it wasn’t unconditional with several colleagues pointing out that there have been many failed examples of outsourcing. Indeed, over the last 15 years, the policing landscape has been littered with examples of outsourcing initiatives that have ended in tears. Chief Officer teams are often very reluctant to become involved in outsourcing – often citing a commitment to public service as a reason to keep functions in-house. But that’s the bit I don’t understand: what basis is there for the belief that the public is necessarily better served if functions are delivered by a police force? And why do outsource arrangements seem to work so well in so many sectors, but not in policing. What’s so different about police fleet, payroll, ICT, etc? And are the police really currently better served than other sectors? That’s not how it seems to me.
NA: It was fascinating to take part in the conversations that David described, and to understand a bit more about senior stakeholder views on the outsource question, but beyond that we weren’t exactly caught up in a rush of people wanting to take the conversation further. At PA, we conduct regular research into outsourcing intentions across sectors and we have recorded a steady, long-term trend towards greater outsourcing of a broader range of back-office functions or areas of niche expertise.
In our most recent report, we focused on IT outsourcing across industry and the public sector. Overall, about a third of organisations indicated an intention to outsource more – with manufacturing, telecommunications, transportation, and financial services all looking to increase their net outsourcing activity to a greater extent than the public sector – even though their baseline is already more outsourced (and policing is less likely to have outsourced than others in the public sector). In short, progress has been slow. In part, as David says, I think this is down to past experiences, but the market has moved on. Outsourcing does not have to mean monolithic, inflexible contracts, or involve swathes of staff moving into the private sector. It can mean access to skills and services that the public sector cannot compete with in terms of expertise or attracting the workforce to deliver them. There are lots more examples in the public sector of adaptable and flexible partnerships with the private sector now, including in areas like higher education.
You described a situation that was set to get worse – with a limited opportunity. Is that still there?
DL: I’ve been a Police and Crime Commissioner for over a decade. In that time, I’ve worked with successive chief constables to manage our way through a period of austerity before enjoying a return to (relative) plenty in the budgets of recent years. It’s been a tough period for policing, as it has for public finances generally. At the time of writing in 2021, it was obvious that a tough financial climate was going to return. We have the pandemic to thank for that as well as wider, global factors. These were then all exacerbated by the wider impact of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. More recently, rises in the rate of inflation have put pressure on budgets – not least on areas like fuel and energy and now we’re waiting to see how much money is going to be needed to fund pay rises for staff who have patiently endured below inflation rises, even when inflation was low. You’re right to say that, in 2021, I saw an opportunity to invest in anticipation of these tougher times and I’m frustrated that there wasn’t a collective will to do so. It will undoubtedly be harder to make an investment in more efficient delivery of non-core services now, but ironically the need to do so is greater than ever.
NA: I agree with David. There was definitely an opportunity and some of that opportunity has been lost. That said, there has been a lot of work done in forces to make improvements – for example in areas like Robotic Process Automation (RPA). I think that policing needs some help to take a fresh look at how pockets of innovation and best practice can be brought together to create the basis of a more efficient, effective and technologically advanced delivery model. I can’t see that happening without a greater role for the private sector but there also needs to be greater co-ordination and support from within policing, whether that comes from PDS, the College of Policing, HMICFRS or even the Home Office. It’s just very hard for individual chief officer teams to prioritise this type of technical, long-term, commercially focused change at a time when there are so many other fires to fight. Some targeted investment of expertise and resource could make a lasting difference.
What’s your message to chief constables and Police and Crime Commissioners?
NA: We’re determined to continue facilitating this conversation and I’m personally grateful to David for his continuing leadership in it. The challenges of public confidence, police performance, police resourcing and workforce skills put alongside the changing nature of threats and criminality aren’t going to go away any time soon and policing can really help itself by getting organised to focus on core police business – the roles and tasks that only the police can do – and leave the rest – both the transactional and the areas of niche expertise that others are better at doing – to specialists who can deliver services more quickly, more affordably and more effectively. Ironically, this non-operational change could be one of the great investments in the operational renaissance of British Policing.
DL: At the heart of this question for me is the simple matter of achieving the best possible value for money for the citizen. We know that forces are creaking under the strain of public contact demand, pressure to deliver excellent service in incident response, crime investigation and neighbourhood policing. Every penny that can be shaved off the cost of creating a payslip, buying a handset, keeping a building secure or servicing a vehicle can then be fast-tracked to the front line. We haven’t made the progress that I’d have hoped to see but I’m hopeful that the necessity of our current situation can be the mother of overdue invention.