A polite notice for the police: One in six people think the force is not with them. Kenneth Clarke sees lessons for officers in a Home Office survey

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The Independent Online
This is an edited version of the Home Secretary's speech yesterday to the Association of Chief Police Officers.

QUALITY of service in the police force must not be just an empty slogan. It has to be seen as a sustained commitment to improve performance in ways that can be noticed by the public and welcomed by those who come into contact with the police.

Some people tend to caricature quality of service as being all about courtesy or smartness or policing with a smile. There is nothing wrong with these aspects, but quality of service is about much more than image. If the service does not come up to the mark, image counts for nothing. The public is not so easily fooled.

A Home Office survey, conducted between August 1991 and June 1992 by Gallup, found that about 75 per cent of the public think the police do a good or fairly good job. Of course, this can be presented the other way round: about one in six thinks the police do a fairly or very poor job.

The first challenge, then, is to tackle this dissatisfaction. More than anything else, personal experience shapes perception. It is said that a negative experience lasts twice as long and is twice as powerful as a positive one. Individuals tend to tell others about poor service received - they are less inclined to give credit for a good service. When the police service is seen to get it badly wrong, the message is transmitted into millions of homes.

'Getting it right first and every time' is one of the stock phrases of quality management. Like other stock phrases, it is devalued by over-use. There is, none the less, more than a grain of truth in it. For the police service, getting it right means the right response at the right time, taking account of all the circumstances. In other words, tailoring the service to the needs and expectations of the user; bespoke tailoring rather than the off-the-peg version.

This is not a soft option. Policing is a complex business. Increasingly the public will know precisely, through performance indicators and published measures of performance, what it has a right to expect.

The accessibility of a service and the face it presents to the public on first contact have an obvious impact on satisfaction. No one likes queuing to be served or waiting on the phone for an answer. When it is a case of reporting a crime or an accident, the stakes are so much higher. The police should try to put themselves in the shoes of customers. Why would we phone rather than visit in person? Why would we use 999 rather than a non-emergency number? What would dissuade us from paying a visit to the police station?

The police should be worried that satisfaction is highest for what can be termed service functions: receiving directions, the time, or crime prevention advice. Satisfaction is lowest for reporting crime, noise/nuisance or disturbance. And those who contacted the police somewhere other than at a police station were more likely to be satisfied or very satisfied with the response.

Reasons for satisfaction included a polite and pleasant manner, prompt arrival, professionalism, taking the probem seriously, showing an interest, being helpful and reassuring. Reasons for dissatisfaction were not doing enough, not interested, not kept informed, being kept waiting.

Again, the lesson is that the things people want from the police service are the same as they, the police themselves, and I, as Home Secretary, want when we visit a bank or a building society or go shopping. We want a prompt and professional service. We want to be treated courteously. We want our problems to be taken seriously. And we want to know what will be done, and by when.

Quality of service is simple in concept. All it requires is a recognition that service means treating others as we would expect to be treated ourselves: fairly, sensitively and as individuals.

The police have particular difficulties. Many people see only the police uniform, not the person inside it. Officers are frequently asked to treat with sensitivity and courtesy people who have little more than a passing acquaintance with those terms.

Surveys by themselves, however, do not deliver results. Performance indicators are essential, as they require forces to publish standards and to say whether those standards have been achieved. The police service has stepped boldly down the path of change. We all know there is a long way to go, but your endeavours have my full support.