A service promise

For people across the world the thing they ask from any of their public services is that they listen to what they need, develop services that take account of that and that they provide the best possible services. Simply put they just want to know that they can rely on the nurses, police officers or teachers to be there when needed to support them, their families and friends.

It is something that businesses have been acutely aware of for many years. No-one would go and spend money in a shop or with a business where the product was not what people wanted, any feedback on it had been ignored and that the products were shoddy and not reliable. So, why should having a service promise for the public sector be such a difficult thing. Ok, there are lots of details and issues that make it more problematic. The services are not easily packaged, there isn’t one product and in many cases the customer doesn’t have an opportunity to vote with their feet or shop around for a better service. But that just makes it even more important that public services are responsive to the changing environment around them and the needs of communities.

Over many years public services have done a good job of confusing the issues by making customer service a tangled web of complicated measures and commitments. Bureaucrats are demanding that every statement can be justified and measured, and a whole army of public sector staff spending their days satisfying the requests for targets.  There were a number of charters including for the NHS, and then there was the much publicised Policing Pledge. At a cost of more than £6m, the previous Labour Government kept telling people that they had rights to expect particular services and to challenge where this was not provided. But despite the investment and the massive PR campaign, very few people knew what it was. And one could argue very few people cared.  Policing was taking place at the time of Sir Robert Peel and it is still taking place today, with or without the Policing Pledge or any charters.

Postcard outlining Labour Party pledges

During the past 20 years the thing that has changed, is that the police as with other public sector agencies have realised the importance of good communication, understanding communities and responding to their needs. In 1990, policing happened to communities and the service was still struggling to move on from the impact of the 1981 riots. There was no investment in consultation with the public and little if any feedback on activities that had taken place. Communication was centred around appeals for information and managing the media pressures caused by significant incidents including shootings.

It is a very different and more enlightened world that we are now in. One where people are encouraged to speak to police officers about what matters, and where processes are being redesigned to ensure they meet people’s requirements and are not just servicing the police and criminal justice system. The same can be seen in local councils, health trusts and other public services.  All are building up the information and engagement that can drive service development.  So why do we continually end up at the extremes of no service promise or one so complicated that we create structures to service it.

What is needed is a real commitment to what people want and to design services that meet it. In policing terms that is to turn up, take action and then tell people what has been done. There are no bells and whistles, no complicated measurement systems and no army of bureaucrats to monitor things on a daily basis. If it works it will mean a good service, for the right people at the right time, and it will by its very nature provide value for money. So, in an era of the Big Society and the recently published policing reform paper let no one forget why the police service exists. It is to keep communities safe, to lock up criminals and stop anti-social behaviour.  To coin an old phrase it is back to basics, not Dixon of Dock Green, but the more enlightened era where we work with people.  Now is the time to make a clear statement on what policing is about and what people should expect from their police. But let us do it in 30 words or less.

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