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Police and Crime Commissioners - the current limits of online accountability

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The Committee on Standards in Public Life recently visited Greater Manchester as part of the evidence gathering for the Committee’s inquiry into the accountability, leadership and ethics of local policing.

Whilst in Manchester the Committee took the opportunity to meet with Francesca Gains, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester, to discuss overlapping themes between her academic areas of interests and those emerging from the Committee's inquiry.

Professor Gains told the Committee about research she had conducted with Vivien Lowndes, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Nottingham, into police and crime commissioners and current limits of online accountability. Professors Gains and Lowndes have provided an overview of their research, which is independent from the Committee’s inquiry:

Our research found evidence of innovation and responsiveness in how commissioners have engaged with the public and set policing priorities.  At the same time, our analysis of PCC websites identifies weaknesses in relation to transparency, and therefore the potential for accountability and scrutiny of PCCs’ work.

Guidance provided by the Home Office to incoming PCCs stressed the importance of making information available on the internet.  But an analysis of PCC websites in the first two years of operation has discovered inadequate and patchy provision of information.  Not all PCCs made their forward plans available online and public meetings were not publicised in all areas.  A minority of PCCs provided links to minutes of public meetings or enabled online questions.   Budgetary information was sparse and difficult to compare.  This lack of transparency creates accountability gaps for public engagement and effective scrutiny by the public, Police and Crime Panels and others.

We looked in detail at PCCs’ provision of information in relation to the requirements of the Public Sector Equality Duty.  Our research found that, in their first year of operation, only 44% of PCC mentioned their equalities responsibilities in their Police and Crime Plan.  This rose to 73% in the second year, but just 15% listed an equalities adviser as part of their staffing.  Do these provisions make a difference?  We found that where commissioners had adopted equalities duties more extensively, they were 2.7 times more likely to prioritise violence against women and girls in their plan compared to those commissioners who made minimal use of their duties.

Our online analysis also highlighted the lack of diversity in police and crime panels (PCPs) whose role it is to scrutinise the work of the PCC.  Women made up just 28% of PCP panellists in their first year of operation, rising to 33% in the second year.  While ‘balance’ is required in relation to geography and partisanship, other diversity strands are no longer a requirement of PCP make-up.  We are concerned that panels are in danger of becoming unrepresentative of the populations they serve.  We propose that the ‘balance’ criteria should be extended to ensure scrutiny of PCCs’ work takes account of all the communities they serve, particularly in relation to gender and ethnicity.

Professor Francesca Gains and Professor Vivien Lowndes are undertaking a four year research project on the changing institutional arrangements associated with the election of Police and Crime Commissioners.  The research is part of the ‘Understanding Institutional Change – A Gender Perspective’ programme, funded by the European Research Council.

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