November 25 2023

Is outsourcing police operations a good idea?

Is outsourcing police operations a good idea?


police lantern

Following the news that G4S says private firms could save forces £1bn a year – is outsourcing police back-office operations a good idea?

Will it save money? Depending on when, and where, you count costs and savings then there is a case for this, as the Lincolnshire Police and Crime Commissioner has advocated. A similar deal with G4S (between Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire) did fall through in 2013 though. This is not just about short-term savings or moving things off the balance-sheet though.

The true costs involve considering whether a new way of working creates longer term risks and costs: will it lead to a loss of capability that can mean people are at greater risk of harm? Will it dissolve the glue or culture that holds organizations together? Could it cause even seconds of delay in life or death situations? Will it create gaps in accountability or procedures that compromise the pursuit of justice? Or, could it create even bigger exposures to the public purse?

Will it work for the police? If you are a front-line officer right now you are probably in an environment where there have been cuts in numbers, you are facing further cuts in numbers, perhaps one or more stations in your neighbourhood is at risk of closure, morale is falling, and your senior commanders are unsure what the future holds. It’s likely you are frustrated that you can’t carry out some tasks you would have been expecting to be able to do when you joined.

These can add up to what psychologists call cognitive dissonance – a gap between expectations and reality that can’t be closed. It’s a recipe for stress, turnover and potentially worse decision making. In the midst of this, to privatise so-called back office functions seems very risky. They may not be seen by the public but they are crucial to one’s employment relationship and being able to do your job – and how you feel about your employer. Changes to IT systems in public services have often led to huge failures and estimates of costs or savings have been unrealistic. You can’t simply change the people without changing the systems.

Will the public benefit? We need to be clear that ‘outsourcing’ means we are starting to talk about the privatisation of policing. This is starting to break up our model of British policing and we may not be able to fix it.

The legacy of new institutional models and previous part-privatisations (by both Labour and Conservative governments) is still with us in the form of PFI debt, a right-to-buy scheme contributing to a massive deficit of council housing, a ‘private’ British Rail receiving as much, or more, subsidy as when it was publicly owned. If part-privatisation becomes normal, there will be no easy way to reverse this. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

Overall there is no doubt this is a risk, all innovations come with risk. The full effects of changes to the social fabric like this take many years to be felt, and the costs and benefits equation can look very different 5, 10 or even 20 years on. The history of any nation’s judicial system is punctuated by catastrophic errors – cases where the vital piece of information was missed, or its significance wasn’t realised, when agencies could not coordinate, where there was a lack of accountability or a blurring of roles and jurisdictions.

There is also an assumption that is not being challenged enough here – that we can sensibly talk about a back-office as though it is separate from front-line work. These should go hand in glove. Take any corporate scandal, then afterwards look at the organisational chart at that company. That will show roles and responsibilities, an organisation’s structure with boxes representing functions, and arrows linking those functions. The scandal never sits neatly in one of the boxes, it’s always in the gaps in between.

Going back to the three questions – will it save money, will it work for police, will the public benefit. The most important of these questions of course is the last one. But that is the one that is in danger of being lost amid the talk of cuts. This debate will be framed in terms of whether it will realise efficiencies, and whether the risks can be mitigated or are worth taking. It is not difficult to make the case for a change like this because it lies in the future – we can’t prove it’s a bad idea until it goes wrong. But one of the few certainties in organizational research is that changes like this always have unintended consequences. Depending on the time scale, outsourcing might save money, and it might not, but that is never the first measure of how well a government serves its citizens.

You can read more about Kevin Morrell and his Policing and Public Confidence project here