Policing in the 21st Century: the role of transparency in Big Society

8 10 2010

In her speech at the Conservative Party Conference on 5 October, Theresa May placed great emphasis on the coalition’s vision for the future of policing in the UK. This vision has two core elements: to restore democratic accountability and to dramatically increase effectiveness through localism, innovation and a removal of bureaucratic constraints. For policing this represents among the most significant reforms since Robert Peel inaugurated the institution in 1829. In a wider context these elements lie at the very heart the Prime Minister’s ‘radical’ agenda for government (see statements on localism).  

What then does this mean in real terms for the police service? Theresa May has committed to the establishment of beat meetings, the publication of crime maps and the election of police and crime commissioners. At the heart of this, is a fundamental shift of power from the centre and the government to the peripheries and the people- the ‘radical heart’ of coalition policy that the Prime Minister speaks of.

However, if this is the coalition’s policy ambition, transparency and the opening up of data must be the vehicle by which it gets there.  Freely available data and information about policing, public safety and criminal justice are essential to enable local and civic engagement and ownership and to ensure democratic accountability of police forces and the wider criminal justice system.

The fulfillment of the Home Secretary’s pledge that ‘from next year, the police will have to publish detailed, street-level crime statistics’, while not ensuring success,  will be vital in defining the scope for success of failure of this reform. In a radical overhaul of traditional, target-centred, bureaucratically accountable public services, the release of data will allow a growing and increasingly diverse network of scrutinisers, both elected and unelected to investigate problems and issues from the point of view of people and contribute to their solutions, both locally and strategically-releasing the Prime Minister’s ‘big society’.

By opening up information and committing to its transparency agenda within a sector that has for decades been more insular and centre facing then open and local, the coalition government can maintain a powerful momentum for reform and build a strong base for it’s vision of a more active and engaged society.

Sean Kirwan

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