Locked out? Don't bother the bobby

Public-sector finance: Many officers fear that devolved budgets will undermine the traditional social roles of the police and lose them public goodwill, says Paul Gosling
The use by police forces of devolved budgets is leading to a radical review of key policing roles, according to a report published today by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. But Cima's report criticises the Audit Commission for pushing local financial management without drawing on other public-service experience, or spelling out which budgets are most appropriate for devolution.

Local police managers are enthusiastic about the liberating opportunities presented by financial devolution. This honeymoon period may soon end, the report's authors warn, with local managers beginning to perceive local management as a poisoned chalice that retains centralised control and is motivated by cost-cutting. The process is already being criticised within forces by financial managers who believe that it is achieving only marginal efficiency gains.

"What was surprising was the lack of evidence of the benefits," says Chris Humphrey, professor of accounting at Sheffield University and an author of the report. "The effects have been presumed as a panacea, but it has not been thought through as much as would be appropriate."

Devolved budgets have reduced bureaucracy in purchasing arrangements, enabling new computers and office furniture to be bought, and stations to be redecorated, but in many cases the change has had little influence on core policing. It is, though, beginning to stimulate a real debate about objectives and responsibilities. "It is generating tensions on what are key policing roles," Mr Humphrey says. This is comparable to the debate on health rationing brought about by the NHS management reforms.

Local commanders now have a greater confidence in setting priorities. One has directed that officers should no longer be involved in disputes over the ownership and use of wheeled refuse bins, nor enforce local authority- imposed parking restrictions. Additional policing requested by shops, councils and pubs may now only be undertaken if paid for.

Cima's researchers believe that despite the Audit Commission's sequence of management reports on the police, it has failed to address properly income generation. There needs to be a discussion on whether full or marginal costing is used for recharges. Football clubs commonly employ their own stewards because forces are charging full costs, even though police still need to attend matches outside the grounds.

Devolved budgets have coincided with stronger centralised direction from the Home Office, undermining the principle of local management. Many officers believe that policing by objective is undermining traditional social roles, such as helping people who have locked themselves out of their homes or their cars. This runs the risk of losing public goodwill, which could lead to erosion of policing by consent.

The report points to some bizarre outcomes of the charge process. Some officers are discouraged from making arrests towards the ends of shifts, in case it leads to overtime payments. There has been a reduction in the policing of some city centre streets at pub closing time at weekends. Other officers talk, apparently jokingly, of chasing suspected offenders over county boundaries so that the costs of arrest fall elsewhere. There is anger that there is no compensation for one force in apprehending a suspect sought by another constabulary.

There is continuing anger that officers earning pounds 40,000 a year - who can cordon-off town centres and order the deployment of firearms - often do not have the authority to purchase a pounds 50 chair. Despite the effects of the Sheehy report, which led to the stripping out of much of middle management, there are still complaints that local commanders have too little administrative control.

What is needed is a more rational approach as reforms move forward. The authors argue that the Audit Commission has allowed local financial management in the police to go forward in a way that is "insular", "ignorant of problems elsewhere" and "silent on the rationales".

For more than a decade, the police have been protected from the public- service revolution, not least because of their importance to the Government in achieving political and economic objectives. Now police officers complain that it is the Crown Prosecution Service which has been spared reform, allowing it to make unnecessary, unreasonable and uneconomic demands on forces.

Although arrest rates per officer have increased, there have been continuing increases in other workloads, arising from new rules on disclosure of evidence and safeguards for defendants as well as from terrorism and the greater emphasis on child protection.

It is no wonder that in this environment, and with policing costing the public pounds 6bn per year, the Audit Commission has put such great stress on helping police forces to get value for money. But, the report authors suggest, continuing reform must be accompanied by a thorough review of the effects of the changes to date.

'On the Budgetary Beat', by MR Chatterton, C Humphrey and AJ Watson, is published by Cima.