Thursday, 9 October 2014

5 Reasons Why It’s Difficult To Privatise The Police

Over the past few years, the police have been thinking the unthinkable.  Faced with a 20 per cent budget cut courtesy of the Coalition’s severe post-financial crisis ‘comprehensive spending review’, many forces have been toying with the policy of privatising frontline services to save money.  Drawing upon new research I have just published in the British Journal of Criminology and Criminology and Criminal Justice, here are 5 reasons why this policy has been so difficult to implement.

1. Media scaremongering

At no point have any police forces sold off their frontline services to the private sector.  What they have been doing is contracting out some of these services – such as custody, call handling and managing police station front counters – to the private sector for a limited duration. So ‘privatisation’ is probably the wrong word for what the police have been doing since it implies a far greater degree of market penetration than is actually happening.  ‘Outsourcing’ is a much better word.  So why are we talking about the ‘privatisation’ of the police?  Because this is how newspapers have framed the debate.  They have peppered their headlines with the word ‘privatisation’ in anticipation that it will strike fear in the heart of the public and, in turn, shift more copies.  A more nuanced commentary on police ‘outsourcing’ does not have the same fear-inducing effect.  This has, predictably, caused problems for senior police officers who are being called upon to justify the ‘privatisation’ of what many regard as an inherently governmental service when they are not in fact privatising anything at all.  (And, yes, I am fully aware that I have shamelessly employed the same attention-grabbing tactic in the title of this blog!)

2. Public Fear

Of course, the reason why such media scaremongering has been so effective is because many members of the public are truly fearful of what might happen if police forces are over-exposed to the market.  While barely a day passes without some form of public outrage directed towards instances of police malpractice or incompetence, at a deep level the average citizen does hold the idea of the police close to their heart.  Generations of children have grown up being instructed by their parents to dial ‘999’ if ever they find themselves in imminent danger.  Uniformed police officers give talks in schools to educate young people about the protective role of the police in a civilized society.  ‘Cops’ are frequently depicted as the ‘good guys’ in pursuit of the ‘bad guys’ in popular television and cinema.  All of which serve to inculcate the benevolent liberal conception of the police into our cultural make up.  Privatising – or more accurately outsourcing – this core public service understandably sparks fear and anxiety among the public.  This makes the task of senior police officers even harder.  A fearful public spurred on by a scaremongering media is not an easy audience to persuade.

3. Scepticism in the senior ranks

While the Home Office exerts significant influence over the direction of police policy, Chief Constables – and now Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) – nevertheless enjoy considerable autonomy when weighing up different policy options.  The enduring principle of constabulary independence means that, if they want to, the 43 police forces can do things in 43 different ways.  So it has been with outsourcing.  Some have embraced outsourcing, others have rejected it outright.  Why?  Certainly there are structural factors at play.  Some forces have more access to council tax revenues than others do, providing some insulation from central government budget cuts, and making radical policy responses less necessary.  Some have more ‘fat to trim’ from their bureaucracies than others do, meaning more savings can be made through internal rationalisation.  However, there is another key factor.  Many senior police officers are simply not comfortable with – or are actively hostile towards – a greater role for the private sector.  Not only have they gone through the same processes of childhood socialisation as every other citizen, but in their adult careers they have then chosen to embody ideals of the police – they’ve even sworn an oath to the Queen.  So they refuse to engage with the market and seek other ways out of their financial dire straits.  This means that in some forces outsourcing never enters onto the agenda as a matter of principle.  And for those forces that do entertain this option, they are faced with scepticism not only from the public, but from their colleagues too.    

4. Inexperience in contracting out

But let’s assume that there are some forces with a challenging structural context and a senior command group who are prepared to give outsourcing a go – and there are a few – then surely it’s simply a matter of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, right?  Not quite.  The world of public sector outsourcing is a complex one, especially for an institution which has almost no experience of its intricacies.  When putting together a proposal, interested private sector providers will want to know the business processes and unit costs of every single service included in the invitation for tender.  However, police forces don’t think in terms of business processes and unit costs.  They think in terms of victims and criminals, evidence and arrests.  Gathering this information together can therefore be a long and painstaking task of self examination which may never reach a conclusion, especially in such a tricky political environment.  This is something that Surrey Police and West Midlands Police found out the hard way when their controversial £1.5 billion outsourcing deal failed to see daylight after years of effort.

5. Staffing the contract

Just for a minute, let’s say that there are forces with a challenging structural context, a senior command group who are prepared to give outsourcing a go, and who have sufficient knowledge of their business processes and unit costs to put together an outsourcing deal before the media, public and colleagues make such a move politically impossible – and there is in fact only one such force, Lincolnshire – then surely meaningful outsourcing is doable?  Yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that it is undeniable that in December 2011 Lincolnshire Police signed a £229 million contract with G4S to deliver 18 services areas – including some on the frontline – over a 10-15 year period.  No, in the sense that despite this major transformation in Lincolnshire Police’s organisational structure, some things really haven’t changed that much.  This is in part by choice.  Lincolnshire Police have been careful to strike a balance between protecting their distinctive public service ethos and reaping rewards from the business process outsourcing expertise of G4S.  But it is also in part a consequence of how the contract has been staffed.  G4S have not simply replaced Lincolnshire Police staff with G4S staff – indeed, it would be illegal to do so – rather they have inherited the Lincolnshire Police staff already in position through TUPE regulations.  This means that, in many instances, the individual responsible for delivering the outsourced service has worked for Lincolnshire Police their entire life and approaches the job in exactly the same as they had done before G4S arrived on the scene.  Other than their ID badge which now reads Lincolnshire Police-G4S, not much has changed.  Sceptics will no doubt breath a little sigh of relief, for it appears as though their worst fears are not being realised.  But for those who are trying to initiate change in the police, it represents just one more barrier to outsourcing.

This blog draws upon:

Dr Adam White
Lecturer in Public Policy
Department of Politics
University of York

Adam’s research focuses on three interconnected themes: (i) the rise of the private security and private military industries in the postwar era; (ii) corresponding issues of governance, regulation and legitimacy in the contemporary security sector; and (iii) the changing nature of state-market relations. These interests are multi-disciplinary, lying at the intersection of politics, international relations, criminology and socio-legal studies.  His recent publications include: The Politics of Private Security (Palgrave Macmillan) and The Everyday Life of the State (University of Washington Press).

Roundtable on the Scottish Referendum

Held on Tuesday 7 October, at 3pm in Heslington Hall, H/G21 The Eynns Room

Participants: Professor Martin Smith, Dr Jim Buller, Dr Sandra Leon-Alfonso, Dr Nick Ritchie, Dr Ignacio Jurado

On Tuesday, the 7th of October, the Department of Politics organised a roundtable on the Scottish Referendum that was held on the 18th of September. The event was attended by students and political activists, faculty and members of the public. Several members of staff contributed insights into various aspects of this historic event. Ignacio Jurado provided a detailed analysis of the vote. Several factors were discussed: class, age, gender, economic expectations, ideological commitments, attitudes towards devolution and the establishment. Sandra Alfonso-Leon provided a comparison between the Scottish and Catalan contexts, focusing on the role of political elites, the profile of the independence voter and the position of the rest of the
country. Nick Ritchie approached the topic of nuclear weapons and discussed the function they played in the vision of statehood proposed by the SNP for an independent Scotland – a vision counterpoised to the British foreign and defence policy. Martin Smith broached the thorny topic of constitutional change in the Westminster model and highlighted the democratic illegitimacy of the pledges made by the leaders of the three national parties in the week preceding the referendum. Last but not least, Jim Buller discussed the implications of the Scottish referendum for the upcoming national elections and the projected EU referendum. The presentations were followed by a Q and A period.

Text and photos by Mihaela Mihai

Debate on the concept of freedom

A small country. A suffocating debt. A crisis. There would be hardly a better time to breathe some freedom. This was the motto of the 3rd Annual Conference of the Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos, a Portuguese charitable trust whose mission is to study and promote debate on the Portuguese society. Over two days, artists, writers, journalists, and political theorists, such as Jeremy Waldron (Oxford), Seyla Benhabib (Yale), Michael Ignatieff (Harvard), Roberto Mangabeira Unger (Harvard), and Monica Brito Vieira (York) gathered in the Cultural Centre of Belém, Lisbon, to debate the concept of freedom and its current constraints with an audience of 1500 people. The conference was covered live by a national TV station and streamline to most universities in the country, with speakers engaging with questions sent by their students. Debates were both in English and in Portuguese. 

You can access them on the foundation’s website:

Friday, 20 June 2014

Financing Development: The World Bank and the Globalisation of Mortgage Markets

Through this post, Liam Clegg takes a break from doing what he should be doing during a period of research leave (writing a book on global housing policy) to tell a story about a medium sized, single level, red brick commercial centre with a big sign on its roof.

I’m currently writing up a book about the evolution of housing policy at the World Bank (working title ‘Financing Development: The World Bank and the Globalisation of Mortgage Markets’). For me the writing process can sometimes become a bit of a slow affair, with increasing levels of frustration coming in as the ideas that seem clear in my mind become less compelling after key has been put to board and ink has been jetted to paper. However, as the many colleagues I keep talking to – or perhaps talking at – about housing policy will attest, this time seems to be very different. In fact, I’m having so much fun learning and writing about housing policy I’ve decided to write this blog about it. But because I am (a) slightly conservative by nature and (b) completely uniformed about libel law in the UK, I’ve also decided here to anonymise the case study I’m currently working on (sorry; you’ll just have to read the book – if, that is, I actually manage to find a publisher for it!).

OK, so lets talk about Country A. Like many places, Country A has a nice bit of a coastline. Town A used to be a picturesque fishing community kind-of-place along this coastline, inhabited by a few hundred families. Town A became quite a lot less picturesque from the mid-1960s, when the World Bank lent the Government of Country A quite a lot of money to build quite a large industrial works on its outskirts. In many ways, the works made good sense; located close of a readily extractable natural resource, good transportation potential over land and sea.

This works was going to be big. The World Bank has a propensity toward lending on a grand scale (it is, after all, a bank; it needs to generate income on its capital base to pay its staff and fund its future operations), and this was going to be the largest facility of its kind in Country A. It was estimated that the number of construction workers employed would peak at around 10,000, and that the number of staff needed to run it would be around about half that number. Given the small size of Town A, this meant lots of employment opportunities for the greater population of Region A. All good stuff; up until this point people in Region A hadn’t had the opportunity to work in large industrial complexes, tending instead to fulfil their immediate needs through subsistence-based agriculture.

So, a town with maybe a few hundred residences is going to be gaining 10,000 temporary inhabitants and, further down the line, 4,000 permanent inhabits plus dependents. This might just cause some accommodation problems. To be fair, Bank staff and their Country A counterparts did think of this; the need for additional housing was flagged to the Ministry of Housing, and a plan drawn up for Town A’s Municipal Authority to sort things out. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Consequently, arriving workers self-built temporary and semi-permanent housing for themselves. Given that across the developing world most peoples’ housing needs are met most of the time through self-build, in and of itself this isn’t as drastic a failure as it immediately seems from our York-based vantage point. However, on this scale, things got very bad very quickly. The quality of shelter was poor, and lack of water and sanitation in particular made living conditions extremely bad.

To try to remedy the situation that its initial intervention had helped bring about, the World Bank arranged a new loan with the Government of Country A to fund remedial action. However, partly because of the speed with which this loan was designed, the Government ended up relying again on the very same Municipal Authority that had failed first time round to carry out these housing improvements. While the progress reports that the Municipal Authority sent back to the Bank presented a picture of remarkable achievements, words on paper did not quite match outcomes on the ground. Some improvements were made; a modest amount of new housing was built, and – more usefully – a fair number of land plots with water and sanitation connections were prepared on which self-builds could be constructed. But when, a couple of years later, a Bank consultant travelled to Town A, it was clear that many of the buildings and infrastructure that had been written of had in fact not been provided.

One of the buildings that was not provided was a modestly-sized commercial centre. Well, it was provided, but it was built by the Municipal Authority before the Bank’s housing loan was arranged: different project, different funding pot; wherever the Bank’s money had gone, it hadn’t gone here. To give credit where credit is due, this commercial centre must have been built to a fairly decent standard. 40 years later, it still looks like it’s in pretty good nick; through the wonders of googlemaps, I’ve seen it. Single storey, red brick, steel roof. As inspiration for the writing process, I’ve pinned a photo of the centre to the corkboard in my office. Beyond this digital remote viewing, additional evidence of build quality comes from the fact that a major multinational bank has at some point in the last decade either bought or started renting out this space. The logo of this bank is written so large above the commercial centre it can be read on a googlemap in thumbnail format. And it’s here, for me, that the story gets really interesting.

If you want to buy a house, and you live in what is now in the 2010s a significantly more populated Town A, what you’re likely to do is to go down to this multinational bank in this commercial centre. Municipal Authority-led housing provision fell by the wayside a long time ago; inefficient and inappropriate use of funds always remained a problem. The main efforts of the Government and the World Bank have for quite some time been focused on making mortgage markets work better. And to me, at this intermediate stage of investigation, it seems like they’ve had a decent amount of success. By supporting lenders in their efforts to tap in to secondary markets, the World Bank and Government have helped expand the pool of credit available for mortgage origination. But the problem is that if you’re not in the highest-income 40 percent or so of the population, you’re not going to be walking in to this bank-with-the-interesting-history to ask for a mortgage.

Across Town A, Country A, and the developing world, the bottom 60 percent – broadly, the people the World Bank has been mandated to help – remain too poor for financial institutions to make a stable, predicable profit from. So banks don’t lend money to them to buy decent housing. Improvements to their shelter, which it’s safe to assume are of a lower standard than that of the top 40 percent of earners, have to come through other means. Country A does indeed have housing upgrading schemes targeted at these groups, and these are touched upon in the World Bank documentation that accompanies their large financial sector focused loans. However, in Country A, the Bank’s own evaluations are pretty critical of the extent to which Bank staff and Bank money have helped to improve and extend what remain highly imperfect operations.

Right now, I don’t know whether Country A provides an egregiously bad example of the globalisation of mortgage markets seeming to distract policy elites from undertaking more mundane, but betting targeted, housing policy interventions. But hopefully I will have soon completed studies of Country B and Country C, and so begin to have a clearer idea. I look forward to letting you know in due course!