One of the key areas I really wanted to explore in our recent evidence gathering visit in Essex was how the PCC tried to engage with local people about local policing issues. What we heard was that Nick Alston had made it his business to hold public meetings Essex-wide to ensure that the public had the chance to meet him face to face. He is, after all, the ‘voice of the public’ as an elected PCC. He also told us about challenge meetings which he comperes a session where the public can question the Chief Constable. The sessions are webcast and available on the PCC’s website afterwards. This is an important part of the PCC’s role of holding the Chief Constable to account.
Like many organisations in similar positions, Nick Alston reported that these sessions were not always very well attended. On a key issue like policing sometimes only as many as 30 people might turn up. Is that a signal of lack of interest or does it mean things are actually going well?
On the other hand, we heard from the councillors on the Police and Crime Panel that a move by the police to hold larger public sessions rather than small parish-level local meetings with police had caused an outcry that they were feeling in their postbags.
The Committee itself holds public hearings from time to time and knows that the public don’t always turn up to hear key evidence sessions unless they have a specialist interest or have a particular bugbear. That’s life. People have busy lives and often more pressing things to attend to.
But what does public engagement mean? Poor turnout doesn’t mean the openness demonstrated by offering the session is worthless.
The Home Secretary has just announced that PCCs might, in future, consider complaints about the police. Will this bring about a new level of public engagement?
When it was devised the role of PCC was intended to bring a more public focus to local policing. The PCC will hold the Chief Constable to account, the local Police and Crime panel scrutinises the PCC and the public can deal with the PCC at the ballot box.
But PCC elections were noted for poor electoral turnout. So what works to engage the public in an age of disengagement? It’s a question all PCCs must be asking themselves.