This time last year Lincolnshire Police were at the beginning of a journey many did not want them to embark on. The groundbreaking contract between the Force and G4S had just begun, to a background of Olympic controversy and impending PCC elections. Policing was in flux. The people of Lincolnshire could be forgiven if they found themselves worrying about the service they might receive from their Police Force and the officers and staff were rightly nervous but also demoralised. The partnership was in a harsh, unforgiving spotlight and the pressure for both sides must have been intense. Privatisation of Public Services became seen as a stick with which the Government was beating the people and most especially, public servants.
Reality is almost always a hop, skip and a jump from popular supposition. Lincolnshire Police is still Lincolnshire Police. It has not been privatised. Outsourcing has been common practice in all Public Services for many years now. So why the furore over the Lincolnshire/G4S partnership? Well, the partnership is extensive and the timing of the new contract really couldn’t have been much worse. The reputation of G4S was taking a very public hammering and Political manipulation was playing right into the hands of the majority of public service workers and users who were ethically opposed to private companies making profits in public services.
Time passed and other scandals took the limelight. One year into the ten year contract, I wondered how things were coming along in Lincolnshire. I spoke with a few officers, a few Lincolnshire residents and I spoke with John Shaw, who is Managing Director of G4S Policing Services and Health businesses. John suggested I visit and see for myself how the partnership was working out, one year in. So I did.
Upon arrival at Police Headquarters, I drove along a row of parking spaces with shiny signs saying ‘Reserved for Visitors of PCC’. The next row said ‘Green Card Visitors’ or something similar. I knew I didn’t have a blue card, so I assumed I wasn’t one of ‘those’ visitors. Logically, I thought I must be one of the ‘other’ type of visitors and I parked in the former row. At reception I was hastily told to move my car into the other row, as that first row was exclusively for the PCC and his staff. So I trotted back to the car park and put myself in my correct place….further away from the building than the PCC and his staff. This was pretty much the only time the presence of the PCC had any influence on my visit. It didn’t leave a good impression with me and one of the first things I asked John Shaw, was about his own parking space. He looked a little non-plussed then said ‘I don’t have one. If I get to work early enough I get a space easily. If I’m not here early enough, like everybody else I have to look for a space. Why should I have a space over anybody else?’
The lady at reception who hurried me out of the PCC parking space talked to me about how it had felt to move over from being Police Staff to G4S staff. There was a definite ethical and personal identity issue and these should not be negated but the reality months later, was that things had gone smoothly and in her particular role she had noticed little if any change. After making me a cup of tea and chatting with me in his noticeably modest office, John took me to meet Helen Wilkie, the Firearms Licensing and Explosives Licensing Manager. I have to say from the outset that I really liked Helen and her enthusiasm for her job and Lincolnshire Police was infectious. Helen retires this month having worked for Lincolnshire Police since she was 16. Personally, I’d have tried every bribe I could to keep someone like Helen for a few more years. Both John and Helen would probably agree that neither saw the other as a likely ally this time last year. Helen told me that she was extremely upset when she first heard that Firearms Licensing was going to be put out for tender. She expected things to go from bad to worse. She already worked long hours under great pressure. She was understaffed and the unit was permanently behind with the workload. Sounds familiar to many I am sure.
The contract between Lincolnshire Police and G4S ensures high standards from the outset with an expectation of continuous improvement from G4S. Targets (I know, I know) are monitored monthly with G4S having to pay Lincs Police if they fall below the agreed level of attainment. Helen told me that almost immediately she felt a positive difference with G4S, in that all of the personnel side of her job was taken away. She was freed up to get on with the active part of her role, allowing someone else to now manage the staff in her department. Helen is also the chair of Unison. She was opposed to the outsourcing both on a personal and on a professional level. Yet today, Helen is enthused and reinvigorated. She described G4S as espousing a ‘tighter’ work ethic to the staff in her department. Something which she thought came as a bit of a shock to the team, but which has ultimately brought positive results for the majority of staff. She told me that her fears have not materialised, that she is personally happier and that people in her team now understand that they are accountable – something which had not been so clear before. She also told me that she encountered as much fear from the public as from the Police when G4S took over and that she still fields calls from worried members of the public from time to time. Helen said to me ‘I’m about solid evidence – all the stories I’ve heard are not evidenced. My experience is highly positive. It’s pepping up everybody. We are spending public money, so let’s do it the best way possible.’ Very soon after G4S stepping in, the unit was ahead of demand on all licences and has remained so ever since. The public are getting a better service than before. Surely that can’t be all because of a ‘tighter’ work ethic? Well, not entirely. It was agreed that a new computer system would be provided and G4S had an idea which system they intended to buy. Helen wanted a different, more expensive system and she found she was able to explain her reasons and make a case for the better system. Helen got her more expensive system. That’s a relatively rare experience in Policing. I could have happily spent all day with Helen, listening to her talking about the before and after of her department and her personal experience. ‘I’m excited by this relationship. I believe Lincolnshire will be a leading Force in Firearms Licensing in the future. We will secure local jobs and bring more jobs to the wider community by bringing in more contracts through the IT and our expertise.’ For a Unison chairperson and lifelong Police employee, that’s quite a statement.
Next I visited the Force Control Room, which is overseen by Andy Jolley, an ex Chief Inspector from a different Force who was specifically employed by G4S for this role, thus utilising Policing expertise and knowledge. I liked Andy and I can see why he was chosen for this role. He bridges a divide between the private company and the public service. Quite a challenge, I would imagine. The Force Control Room (FCR) is, in my opinion, a very important area. It is the first point of contact for many service users and the time it takes for their call to be answered and then how that call is handled, sets the scene for the rest of the user experience. The G4S plan was to lose 35 staff from the FCR whilst changing some systems and increasing the work ethic. It soon became clear that this would not work and due in quite some part to the very tight contract written by Lincolnshire Police, it is in the interests of G4S to provide the very best service they can. So the decision was made to only lose 9 staff from the FCR, with G4S absorbing the cost of the remaining staff. They did this because ‘it was the right thing to do’. They were able to look at how the FCR functions are make some changes to aid the staff, for instance they increased the dedicated 999 call takers by 50% and introduced more movement between roles, so that staff become omnicompetent. The baseline measurement in the FCR is a 10 second call pick up and this is much improved on the last two years. The room is operationally overseen by Police Inspectors, with one Chief Inspector in strategic control for Lincolnshire Police. As with Helen in Licensing, the Chief Inspector has lost all of the HR work in the department, freeing time and energy. To this end, Lincs have been able to extend the role of the Chief Inspector from simply FCR to an umbrella Criminal Justice role, benefitting the organisation and the person in that role. A new Chief Inspector is taking on this wide remit and it might be interesting to revisit this situation in 6 months to see how things are going. Andy told me that he arranged for regular meetings with Sergeants from across the county and that fears and worries were largely alleviated. He explained that ethos is to recognise a problem and then solve it. The Sergeants don’t bring issues to him anymore and they are generally happier than they used to be. Andy was proud that the FCR is achieving increased public satisfaction alongside happier officers.
The FCR felt happy and industrious – I could have spent longer in there chatting with staff, but lunch beckoned, where I had the slightly surreal experience of sitting with John whilst watching Chris Grayling live on TV exercising his Parliamentary privilege to make damaging claims against another branch of G4S, the ramifications of which will rumble on for quite some time. To discuss this ‘as it happened’ with John, allowed me to see another side to the story.
Parliamentary intrigue and lunch dealt with, I was taken to meet with the Federation representatives. This was interesting as I was at first quite surprised to hear a positive view even here, in the Federation offices. I spoke with Jason Kwee who told me he felt G4S have a ‘can do’ attitude, that IT was already much improved and the use of video conferencing had been extended to negate extra travelling hours across the county. The r message I picked up from him was that ‘things happen quicker now’. I then met with John Hassall, who had a slightly different view. He acknowledged the changes and positive aspects of the strategic partnership that had discussed with me, but concentrated more on details that he felt weren’t working. The “Street to Suite” custody van introduced by G4S to enable officers to stay out on the streets rather than spend hours transporting and booking in prisoners has proved popular and beneficial. However John explained that he did not like the battenburg livery on the van as it looks like a Police vehicle even though it is not manned by Police Officers. He felt this was misleading the public. His cautious air cut an intriguing comparator with the generally positive tone that I had hitherto heard within the building.
I spoke with Chief Constable Neil Rhodes who told me he was finding the relationship with G4S a positive one and that he was looking forward to further benefits as the contract continued. It was a rather comical meeting as I trotted down several flights of stairs with him and out into the car park, in an attempt to gain some insight. Whilst interesting, I found far more useful information from staff in departments physically effected by the partnership. That being said, his strategic view of the partnership was reassuring to hear.
John then took me to see Sergeant Adi Wootton in the Commercial Partnership office. He told me the general feeling was that this partnership had been forced upon them, in that the budgetary constraints meant they had no choice as a Force but to look at extreme measures. He said that if the situation had not been forced upon them, ‘dialogue may have been more gentle’ and they ‘wouldn’t have lost the extended Police family’. I questioned him on this, as the same people are largely doing the same jobs as before. He agreed that it is largely an emotional response rather than something which can be evidenced. He said that historic staff still see themselves as Lincolnshire Police staff even though they are outsourced and that this is largely because the change has been very well managed. He explained that the contract ensures that G4S ‘is the fall guy instead of Lincolnshire Police’ if standards drop and that the benefits outweigh any problems or concerns.
Back in John’s office, we chatted about what I had seen and heard during the day. John was open and welcomed any subject I brought up. I sat at the desk with the contract in front of me. It is so huge, it was almost higher than my head! We talked about the difference between customers, service providers and partners. John sees himself (or the company) in partnership with Neil (or Lincs Police) and Alan (Hardwick), the PCC is a customer. I’m sure we could all get hung up on the rights/wrongs or otherwises of this but I am equally sure that it really doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the staff and officers are feeling the benefit and most importantly whether the people of Lincolnshire are getting a good or hopefully improved service. The contract has 236 KPIs (performance indicators) written into it and these have to be met by G4S each and every month. Failure to meet any of the KPIs results in payment from G4S to Lincolnshire Police. This arrangement was described to me by several people as a ‘win-win’ for the Police. The contract is written as a continuous improvement model and G4S have to reach higher each year of the ten year contract. Some of the KPIs are already much higher than many other Forces are achieving and G4S are consistently meeting these targets. Some former police staff have benefitted from becoming G4S employees too. I met Angie Driver, who has been put on to the company’s high potential scheme. She is benefitting from this, taking on extra responsibilities and can confidently expect a much brighter future than would have been likely previously. Obviously this is not the story for everyone, but I wanted to find good examples of personal and professional progression and Angie certainly filled that role.
I asked John what Lincolnshire Police could learn from G4S and he immediately replied that they can learn to manage budgets and to live within budgets . Financial management training is an important part of the ongoing development for staff who run departments and this was not a common practice prior to G4S involvement. I then asked John what G4S could learn from Lincolnshire Police. He immediately brought up the situation in the Force Control Room where he realised that the plan to drop so many people was inappropriate. He talked about the need to be flexible and although G4S thought their plan would work, it became obvious this was not the case. They learned, readjusted and moved on. He then talked about ethos and about trying to be as efficient as possible so that time and money can be freed up.
Whilst I and I think the majority of people who are drawn to public service feel ethically opposed to the profit driven private sector having any part to play in the public sector, it cannot be ignored that outsourcing has been happening for many years now. The concept is not new and the debate had already passed us by before we realised. It is not the lucrative contract I had imagined it to be. Profit is capped at 8% and anything over and above that mark is ploughed back into Lincolnshire Police itself. The contract is key and this contract is a tight one which Lincs should be very proud of.
Yesterday, HMIC highlighted Lincolnshire Police as one of five Forces who will struggle to meet further budget cuts. The Force undoubtedly faces challenges but the partnership with G4S provides a bolster which HMIC, in my opinion, fails to understand. G4S are providing Lincolnshire with modern IT solutions, better business practices, more engaged staff and a flexibility as yet unseen in policing. I believe that the next few years, although challenging, will allow a small Force which quietly outperforms many bigger, brasher Forces around the country to shine and become a model for others. This would not be possible without the contract with G4S and the goodwill the company are showing over and above the contract requirements. I will be watching with interest and rooting for them all, as ultimately their success will be realised in better public services for the people of Lincolnshire.
Adendum: Since publishing this piece I have been asked who paid for my visit, which has also been referred to as a ‘guided tour’. So, for those readers who do not know me well, I feel I need to indulge in a little self description. I have done nothing for money or any other inducement since beginning this blog. I visited Lincolnshire Police and G4S because I am interested and because I have built a level of respect for several people working in that partnership, based largely on conversations begun via Twitter over more than 18 months. I did not go with the intention of writing anything in any particular vein, other than the truth as I found it. I am buoyed by the positive comments I have received from serving Lincolnshire Police Officers of all ranks. Theory, ethics and practicalities rarely walk happily, hand in hand. The only question remaining in my mind is why can’t public sector do what G4S is doing? That’s another blog, but I already have some idea why not. Cate.