16 February, 2018

The importance of openness and transparency in policing

Last month, Julia Mulligan achieved the Transparency Quality Mark from CoPaCC. As the lead Police and Crime Commissioner nationally for Transparency and Integrity, she was of course delighted to receive this award. Here, she explains the importance of openness and transparency in policing.

The ‘Quality Mark’ recognises a PCC’s commitment to transparency and is a clear sign that information about what I do and how I go about my work, is easy to find and all present and correct. As someone who is elected to ensure the police do a good job on behalf of the public, it’s important that the public and others with an interest in my work have ready access to the decisions I make on their behalf, as well as the money I raise and spend, the way I scrutinise the police service and how I understand the needs of the public in my area. Indeed, PCCs are subject to clear legal guidelines about publishing information, and I’ve gone beyond these minimum statutory requirements, to actively promote an open and transparent culture in all of my work.

Openness and transparency are both extremely important because they engender trust. If people can see what you are doing, they are far more likely to trust what you do. And this is important, particularly in respect of policing. The introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners was controversial for a number of reasons, but particularly as people felt there may be a risk of ‘politicising’ the police service. So it is doubly important for PCCs to take their responsibilities for openness and transparency seriously and I very much welcome CoPaCC’s continued commitment to this scheme, awarding 24 other PCCs with their Quality Mark this year.

There are a variety of steps PCCs can take to engender a culture of transparency in their own offices, but this also has a direct impact on the police service. Because of the nature of much of their work, culturally the police can find it challenging to be more open. But for the public to retain their trust and confidence in the police when attitudes to people in positions of power and authority are changing, it is essential for the police to ‘move with the times’. Police and Crime Commissioners are now essential to encouraging positive change in policing culture, towards a more transparent modus operandi.

For this to happen, I believe a pre-requisite is mutual respect between PCC and Chief Constable, as this promotes openness amongst the senior leadership. And in the traditional ‘top down’, hierarchical culture that is policing, leadership by example is essential. Sometimes this can be challenging. For example, every month I live stream my Public Accountability Meeting, which people can watch whilst we’re ‘on air’ or catch up on later. They can also ask questions on Twitter, which we will answer during the meeting. The police found this uncomfortable to begin with, but now it’s become routine. The Chief Constable also ensures that a range of officers at different ranks are able to present and be quizzed on their area of work in public. It sounds like a small thing, but changes such as these are important in opening up the police service to greater public scrutiny, and thus protecting the concept of ‘policing by consent’ which is so important to our society.

It’s not all plain sailing of course. Sometimes like the police service, PCCs cannot be as open as we may like, as immediately as we may like. For example, I am in the process of selling North Yorkshire Police’s former HQ. The move will save a lot of money, especially as the building is a grade 2 listed hall. So it’s challenging, commercially sensitive and controversial, being a matter of real public interest. But to reveal all now, wouldn’t be in the public interest either, as I also have a duty to the public to get the best deal I can, after all it’s their asset and their money.

So for me, being open and transparent is not just about what you put on your website, important as that is, but it is also about your personal beliefs and the way you make decisions. This can be very difficult at times, but a genuine commitment to transparency, will give you every chance of demonstrating the openness and authenticity that is so important in this day and age.