The Guardian splashed yesterday on “government plans for police privatisation”. Of course, by ‘government’ they meant ‘West Midlands Police Authority’ and by ‘privatisation’ they meant ‘outsourcing of certain functions’, but still: private policing sounds scary, right?
Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. A nice man from G4S went on the news last night to calm everyone down, although perhaps his decision to answer questions in a creepy monotone didn’t entirely reassure those worried about the takeover of public services by alien robots.
In any event, others will write far more knowledgeably than I about the politics of this proposal and its potential effects on policing and civil liberties. Perhaps I may be permitted, however, to offer a few thoughts on the practical challenges of outsourcing a service of this nature.
Many will worry about an ethic of public service being lost when police work is undertaken by the private sector. I think that Group4Bot is right when he says that existing employees transferring under TUPE will bring that ethic into the outsourced service, although it is reasonable to worry about its dilution over time.
He is, I think, on much less secure ground when he says that accountability is ensured through contractual performance measures and remedies. Or rather, he is correct, but only up to a point.
I would argue that contractual accountability is narrower than political, regulatory or management accountability. The former measures only whether the terms of the particular contract have been complied, whereas the latter are (or should be) concerned with outcomes rather than process.
This is because contracts set out a defined service for a defined price. In theory, you could write a contract where outcomes are the only measure, with the service provider free to choose the method of delivery. In practice the buyer wants to retain as much control as possible and the service provider wants to mitigate the risk of uncertain expectations, and this tends to lead both towards the inclusion of detailed specifications.
As a result, contractual accountability is only as good as the contract itself. The service provider’s obligation is to provide the service as described; if the specification is incomplete, the buyer will have no remedy for the service provider’s failure to perform the missing activities.
And because the price has been quoted on the basis of the contractual description, the rectification of errors and omissions is likely to be at the buyer’s cost. The same is true for variations that arise through changing needs and priorities.
This is perhaps no big difficulty for a straightforward service, where the scope is well understood and experts are on hand to ensure that the contract is comprehensive. Any changes that are required after contract signature will, if everyone has done their job well, be limited in nature.
The bigger and more complex the service, however, the more chance there is of errors and omissions in the initial contract. According to the OJEU Contract Notice excerpted by the Guardian, pretty much all civilian and uniform police work is covered by this tender, in just two lots. It doesn’t get much bigger or more complex than that.
That’s a lot of contract, and the task is made harder by the novelty of the transaction. Some very fine lawyers and consultants will be paid big fees to get it right, but frankly it’s an almost impossible task.
Contractual accountability is also retrospective, and purely commercial. If the service provider breaches the contract, the buyer can claim damages either on a liquidated basis (e.g. through a contractual service credit mechanism) or by bringing a claim for the breach. For some activities (say where someone’s liberty is at stake), one might prefer that governance is more focused on personal accountability and preventing mistakes in the first place.
And then there is the challenge of creating a contractual performance regime that accounts for the many things that can go wrong in police work. Some procedural errors may not become apparent for many years, and then only after further investigations and appeals with all of the expense that go with them (which in some cases will be largely incurred by stakeholders other than the police).
Even if a workable regime could be devised, would a commercial provider sign up to a contract under which they could incur substantial liabilities years after the services had been performed? Well, pretty much anything is available at a price.
Add to all of this the desire of politicians, from central government to our exciting new elected commissioners, to meddle in policing strategy and priorities. If their tabloid-pleasing / chattering-class-coddling (delete as applicable) wheezes require a contract change, the service provider gets to put in another bill.
All of which is to say, you can probably still have accountability for an outsourced service – but it will cost you. I don’t really know whether outsourcing will make the police better or worse, but I’m doubtful about whether it will turn out to be cheaper in the long run.