Tuesday 16 December 2014

The Hogan-Howe approach would be disastrous

The long shadow of the BlairBrown approach to public services seems to still reach across the years.  The Metropolitan Police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe has spelled out what should happen to the police to save money.  And, reading through the list, I was wafted back to the infuriating days of 2007 or so - when I was so cross at the state of public services that I set out to write a book.

It eventually emerged as The Human Element, three years later (or was it four?)

Now one of the great omissions of the coalition, in my humble view, is that they failed to draw a line under the public service reforms of the past.

Yes, they promised to reduce targets - and they did a bit.  They very sensibly abolished the tyrannical Audit Commission, which was standing in the way of innovation like a serious case of constipation.  But that was it.  They never articulated what the problem was, and precisely the mistakes Gordon Brown had been making - and often carried on making them as a result.

It is easier to see those fake solutions a little more clearly now for what they are.  If the commissioner gets his way, and merges police forces into mega-forces, organises more combined back office services, contracts out key non-uniformed functions and relies more on IT, they will not just find their way disturbingly back to 2008 or so - but costs will rise considerably and effectiveness will go down.

How do I know?  Well, the last study I saw of merged police forces showed that smaller police forces catch more criminals than bigger ones.

There was also the famous explanation by economics Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom of why crime went up in Chicago when the police went off the beat and began to rely on communications equipment.  It was because the public no longer felt they were needed to fight crime - when, actually, they make all the difference and it is quite impossible without them.

I accept, of course, that one of Hogan-Howe's purposes is to avoid cutting community policing, and he's right about that.

But the rest of the Hogan-Howe approach, rather like the Gordon Brown approach, reduces the public to mild irritants who ought to get a grip so that they can be processed more easily.  It doesn't work - and for very good reasons, outlined better than I can by the systems thinker John Seddon - it is extremely expensive.

Why have we still not learned these lessons?  Well, partly because - despite the original rhetoric - the coalition never learned them.  Partly because Whitehall finds this kind of counter-intuitive evidence very hard to hear.  And partly because, despite all the sound and fury, our services still exist in a world, not just shaped by Brown, but has ended up as extreme Brown.

We have to articulate a better, more effective way, before we all drown in bills.  May I humbly submit The Human Element as my contribution to the debate we are not yet having about the economies and diseconomies of scale.

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