The future of policing: collaboration and social media

My brother has always wanted to be a policeman. He'd make a great copper - he's approachable, sensible, tolerant and pretty much unflappable, and he wants to improve social justice and make a difference in the world. Unfortunately, his application to join the force was rejected because of something he had said online. They weren't specific, but made reference to "comments which were detrimental to the reputation of the force." He was surprised at the idea that there were members of the police force whose job consisted of googling potential applicants to see if they'd ever mentioned Her Majesty's Constabulary in a less-than-positive light. But it isn't really that surprising.

Writing about the police

It's not surprising when you consider that journalists in training are advised to use extreme caution when reporting on the police, who apparently have a track record for being trigger-happy when it comes to suing the press for libel. That the police are more inclined than any other UK public body (and most private ones) to pursue libel cases on and off-line seems to be common knowledge in certain sectors. I couldn't find any publically available guidelines to press or statements from the police outlining this strategy - but most journalists and lawyers who deal regularly with the police will be aware of it. At the Westminster Legal Policy Forum Keynote Seminar on the future of policing - accountability, cost and effectiveness which I attended last Thursday, I spoke to a solicitor who confirmed this impression. "It's appallingly detrimental to freedom of speech", he told me. "It's hard to speak out when you have the whole police force breathing down your neck."

This culture is ably facilitated by the Police Federation, a private law organisation funded by regular payments from police officers, in exchange for which it vigorously pursues libel cases on their behalf.

Reputations are precious. They can take a lifetime to establish, yet can be destroyed with just a few words. Police officers' reputations matter because a police service cannot function effectively unless it is trusted and respected by the public. The reputation of the police service is a complicated compound of each individual police officer's reputation.

Defamation occurs when someone says, writes, broadcasts or posts on the internet something which will make people think badly of you or your business, damaging your reputation and feelings.

Within the defamation area for Police Federation members, we also regularly advise police officers and Federation officials on press statements, and often assist in trying to keep defamatory stories out of the media. We are well known to all the major media organisations through our dealings with them on behalf of police officers over many years, so they take our involvement in a case seriously.

Very interesting indeed. And it seems to have been going on for some time. Rejecting the "it's safe if we don't name them" defense against libel, News Desk UK writes:

All a claimant has to demonstrate to the court is that his family and friends understood the offending article to refer to him. Therefore if , say, you allege that an unnamed police constable, aged 30, working out of the town's central police station, had mistreated a prisoner in the cells, there is the chance of all the constables in their 30s at the station suing. During the 1980s and 90s the Police Federation made good use of this aspect of libel law.

This context set the stage in a fascinating way for the second half of Thursday's seminar on the future of policing, which was split into two panel sessions plus a talk by Sir Ian Blair on "a future structure for policing". The first panel, "Police and communities: priorities, accountability and the private sector" focussed on engagement with communities; how the police can find out what the public want and improve public satisfaction with policing. This was followed by "The policing budget: partnerships, large scale events and public safety", which covered different approaches to increasing efficiency while reducing cost.

Partnerships: public and private

Collaboration was a recurring theme, starting with the issue of private sector service providers. Debate raged around the example of private security firms such as Sparta Security (whose founder Francis Jones spoke on the panel), which offers street patrol services to residents who do not trust the police to keep order. Peter Smyth of the Metropolitan Police Federation insisted that this use of private security was highly inappropriate, asking to whom such bodies were accountable (ironic given the lack of accountability demonstrable within the police force), and stating that if the public were not satisfied, it is the police's responsibility to improve matters. The discussion was fascinating in the context of Stephen Kershaw's remark, earlier that morning, that accountability is particularly important within the police because they are a monopoly service provider; they are not operating within a free market. The police feel that private firms cannot be trusted with police powers - and yet in some areas, the public are willing to trust such firms more than the police. Is the fact that they can withdraw their custom if they are ever dissatisfied the only factor?

Francis Jones of Sparta Security insisted that crime is on the increase - an inaccuracy which was justly overruled by senior civil servants. It is true, however, that despite a steady improvement in crime rates over the last 20 years, fear of crime is on the increase. Police officers at the seminar blamed this squarely on a scaremongering, sensationalistic media, which is definitely a big factor. If the press is the primary culprit, however, there is significant evidence of the police colluding with it when it suits their purposes.

In the next panel, the speakers lauded the police's partnerships with local councils, schools and the health service, all recent initiatives which have yielded positive results. Clearly the public sector, unlike the threatening and untrustworthy private sector, is considered an appropriate partner for police collaboration. But what of the third sector? The first question of the day, from the Penrose delegate I mentioned in my previous article, had mentioned that the police force may benefit from collaboration with interested, expert members of the third sector. She was told that such collaboration was "difficult to implement".

Unwitting elephants

Governmental departments certainly don't have a good track record when it comes to effective collaboration with third party services. Public Strategist released an excellent article last week entitled Government is an elephant, which cited several public services offered by volunteer or third sector organisations, which have been trampled by official departments from the Environment Agency to the Department for Work and Pensions. This suppression of third party services may be well-intentioned on the part of the government, who want to offer a satisfactory service themselves rather than relying on third parties. Nonetheless, the effects are damaging for several reasons:

  • It inevitably results in duplication of effort, in which government bodies repeat work already done in the third sector at the taxpayer's expense.
  • Third parties are often in a position to offer a better service than their official counterparts. The third sector moves faster than the government and tends to be more up to date. Third parties frequently benefit from expert advice which the government chooses not to take, and are better able to offer a neutral space for engagement (as in the case of Patient Opinion, an NHS feedback service which benefits from being outside the system in question).
  • Unwitting or no, the outcome of such unintentional government takeovers is to dissuade third parties from offering public services - which is surely detrimental to the health of our society.

The most recent example of this is myPolice (.org), whose story has been making headlines in the last week. Briefly put, myPolice, a volunteer third-sector organisation offering a forum for feedback and "constructive collaboration" between police officers and members of the public, has been trampled by the launch of HMIC's My Police ( The "official" service re-uses HMIC's long-planned Report Card system, but lacks the neutrality of its third party counterpart. Public Strategist revisited the topic yesterday:

Patient Opinion is paralleled (for better or worse) by feedback mechanisms within NHS Choices. But there are, on the face of it, some attractions to there being a neutral forum which avoids even the risk of a perception of defensiveness or filtering.

"We love the NHS" is a rallying cry which generates an immediate and visceral response from a lot of people. There is a huge emotional engagement with the health service which, for a whole range of reasons, isn't and can't be completely reproduced elsewhere. "We love the DVLA" or "We love our tax office" somehow doesn't have the same ring to it. Interestingly, though, "we love the police" - or at least, "we love our bobby" gets some of that same emotional value, which is part of what gives My Police the space in which to operate.

Would collaborating with myPolice and using the work already done by them really be "more difficult" for HMIC than developing their own site from scratch and then fighting a lengthy media row over the name? The gap between HMIC's actions and their stated aims continues to widen.

Embedded inconsistencies

A tweet from myPolice yesterday morning suggests that HMIC may be prepared to do the decent thing in this case - I eagerly await reports on their willingness to compromise or, hell, maybe even collaborate. Last Thursday, however, the myPolice fiasco informed my second question of the day, addressed to Sir Ian Blair after his mostly-predictable speech on a future structure for policing.

He had talked a lot about community engagement; I asked if he saw a future in such engagement taking place online, given the increasing importance of virtual, geographically distributed communities in people's lives. I also asked how he reconciled HMIC's stated drive to find out what the public wants and respond to feedback with their track record in responding to online criticism with legal threats; and more recently with the controversy surrounding My Police (which I took the opportunity to explain briefly).

As with my previous question, I received no satisfactory answer. "I don't know anything about that," he said, "but I'd hope the police would be big enough to admit if they'd done something wrong". His avoidance of the issues raised by my question reflected HMIC's attitude so far. Not only does HMIC's talk of engaging with the public seem like so many empty words in light of their repeated actions, but they can offer no adequate response even to feedback they have deliberately sought out. They may be playing by the numbers of seeking public feedback on their service, but it will be worthless unless they actually listen.

Clearly, the police's intentions in launching My Police are good. Senior police and policy-makers are expending vast amounts of energy towards the stated goal of improving service and customer satisfaction. But is any of this effort bearing fruit? The police, like every other governmental department, are also inevitably pre-occupied with reducing costs, increasing effectiveness and streamlining their budget. It seems to me that the police would find both aims massively easier if they were prepared to work with the third sector. By refusing to collaborate, duplicating effort and ignoring the innovative contributions of expert volunteers, the police are wasting government resources - at a time when the budget is so desperate that the future of innovation is being threatened by higher education funding cuts. Not only are they ignoring the valuable work done by neutral volunteer organisations, they are actively trampling and suppressing it - which seems at odds with their stated aims of improving engagement and public satisfaction.

Online communities: monitoring and engagement

My question to Sir Ian remains pertinent. Business and politics have scrambled to catch up with developments in social media; the latter often not perceiving the difference between grassroots activism and astroturfing. The Internet has been a gift to politically proactive people, allowing them to get heard and get organised faster and better than ever before. Only a fool would fail to see its potential advantage to public services. But government departments rarely move fast - and, once moving, they tend to be painfully inept at developing a convincing voice for the web.

Since the outrage following the G20, HMIC has made more effort than most. Anonymous policing blogs have made fascinating reading for years, but the force has recently started to engage online in a more official capacity. At the Blackheath Climate Camp last August, the MPS set up a twitter account in an attempt to seem more approachable - although they barely released any information on it, and explicitly posted to say they would not respond to @replies.

Shortly after the G20 the Met hired a consulting firm to "monitor social media". Many businesses now employ online communicators whose role is exactly this - to trawl the web for references to their brand, engage with the commenter on a personal, informal level, answer criticism and try to fix any problems they have. It's not an easy job, but it's become an essential part of 21st century customer service. HMIC are wise to realise they need to show the same willingness to use contemporary technology and communication methods. Imagine if the police had an online outreach team engaging in conversations, listening to people's concerns, answering questions and providing information. Imagine if people's views on what could be improved were heard and acted on. It's a tantalising vision, but the police have earned our mistrust. Will they scope the web in search of people to come down hard on - reported crimes, activist organisations, filesharers and criticisms of the police? Or is it possible that a police outreach team could squash their institutional defensiveness long enough to listen to feedback, respond personally, and work uncomplainingly to make things right?

In the past few months individual PCs have started using twitter to communicate with the public they serve. PC Ed Rogerson is ahead of the curve in Yorkshire, and Gordon Scobbie in the West Midlands is the "national lead for Social Media within UK police". This assertion is backed by the existence of a West Midlands regional account, and another from their press & PR officer. These accounts are conspicuously and pointedly non-anonymous, and serve as an example of best practice for personalised online engagement. "Community" is global and remote as often as it is locative these days; "community policing" needs to be updated accordingly.

Unfortunately, such examples are still rare within the force. As an organisation, HMIC laments the lack of public responses to their Annual Surveys while squashing or ignoring the feedback and discussions already available online. For all its talk of community engagement and collaboration with third parties, HMIC seems to be missing a couple of fundamental points: that the third sector constitute a valuable resource they would be wise to harness, and that the point of conversations is to listen. The wheels are spinning furiously at the top - but is the culture of HMIC actually moving?

Anthony Barnett has characterised this resistance to reform as a fundamental failing of New Labour, but his words could equally well describe the failings of the police in recent years:

Raise the question of a social problem under Labour, and a barrage of reports, initiatives, consultations and other evidence will be produced to show how deeply the party knows and how seriously steps are being planned - as if Labour were in opposition, struggling to make a difference.

The future of policing seminar ended with talk of reform. The final panel agreed that a Royal Commission was long overdue, and the Chair concluded by saying "we need a group of sensible people who can take a dispassionate, objective look at the situation". That might be nice, but can real change to a system as sprawling, slow and imperfectly self-regulated as HMIC come from within?

At the end of the session Lord Judd congratulated everyone on a job well done - "How refreshing to see such self-examination," he declared. I'm not sure congratulations are in order yet. Government is elephantine not only in its unwitting trampling of smaller creatures, but in its immense inertia and resistance to change. If HMIC are serious about improving community engagement and reducing their costs, they need to completely revise their strategy for collaboration with third sector service providers. And if they want to improve public satisfaction, they need to start listening.

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