Police Services – Labour’s Disappointing “Zero-Based Review” uses Procurement Savings as the Easy Option

Last week, the UK’s Labour Party published the first in what is going to be a series of “zero-based reviews” (ZBR). According to Labour, that means “a root and branch review of every pound the government spends from the bottom up – which Labour has begun in opposition and will complete in our first year in office”.

Unfortunately, it is not a root and branch review, and certainly gives no sign that Labour has the appetite to take on the huge tasks of reforming public services and addressing the budget deficit. (I should say that the current government has had pretty limited success in either of those two goals either). Rather, this is a collection of a few minor but populist measures such as charging more for a gun license, one largely political move (scrapping the elected Police and Crime Commissioners), then the old favourite of benefits from more centralised procurement to bring the whole thing up to a reasonable total savings number.

What is zero-based budgeting? Here is one definition. “Zero-Based Budgeting is a broad-reaching cost transformation effort that takes a “blank sheet of paper” approach to resource planning. It differs from traditional budgeting processes by examining all expenses for each new period, not just incremental expenditures in obvious areas”.

So, if you were really going to do a ZBR of the Police Service, and given that labour costs are over 70% of the total police service spend, where would you start? We’d suggest that might be with those staff costs.

You might start by looking at where front-line police staff spend their time. What could be done through better use of technology to reduce admin time and resource?  Where else could cheaper, less skilled resource be used instead of uniformed officers – community support officers, or admin staff, or something more radical?

How about the management structure of the Service, and the costs that are driven by the management structure? Why on earth do we have 43 different police forces in England and Wales? What if we had ten – how much could be saved in terms of senior management, property, and a whole host of other costs? Or what if a national force was introduced to handle complex crimes?

Then of course the couple of billion annual procurement spend should be considered as part of the ZBR. But the Labour review just takes old numbers on the potential benefits of centralisation and says “let’s do that”. They propose a central procurement unit and contracts with mandatory use by Forces.

I don't necessarily disagree directionally but what about demand management rather than simply assuming the benefits of blunt centralisation? And of course one of the big weakness of this review is it just assumes you can magically implement this centralisation and deliver huge savings from day one, without any consideration of the time needed for new legislation and set-up, the costs of this central approach, costs or time needed to exit existing contracts, redundancy of existing staff in Forces, new systems ... the savings just magically appear in year one.

Basically, this is not a zero-based review. It is a “Gershon-Lite” efficiency review, picking up on a few initiatives that may be worth doing but have been chosen principally to come over as vaguely convincing soundbites to the average uninformed voter. It gives Labour a few points that can be included in the manifesto in order to claim “look, we have ideas in the Police sector” – without of course proposing anything vaguely controversial. Because merging forces and similar moves that really could be transformational would frighten the proverbial horses, not to mention the Chief Constables.

So this is as far away from a proper zero-based review as this article is from a Booker Prize nominated novel. Very disappointing and a wasted opportunity.

First Voice

  1. Stephen Ashcroft:

    Excellent analysis. I share your concerns about people outside procurement understanding how engaging and managing third parties can be applied to deliver a business strategy or organisational policy cf reforming public service, reducing the deficit. The ZBR is yet another example, a limp example, at that.

    But hold. As some one with a narrow ‘procurement’ view it makes me think of the parable and the blind men and an elephant. Broadly, the parable implies that one’s subjective experience can be true, but that such experience is inherently limited by its failure to account for other truths or a totality of truth.

    Maybe HR, finance, IT – and other functions/stakeholders, who else knows?- would have valuable insight on a review of every pound the government spends.

    Procurement insight COULD add value I would need convincing that, for example, sticking a procurement bod on the review panel would be the total answer.

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