Public trust and confidence in many institutions and public services has been eroding for some time. The banks, the BBC, Yorkshire County Cricket Club, the police, Parliament, local authorities – and many more – have all faced criticism for aspects of their conduct and culture. How do we reverse this? How do these organisations regain and retain people’s trust going forward? Without that our life together will suffer immeasurably.
It’s something that as Police and Crime Commissioner I have had to give some time and thought to over the years. We have had our own local issues of trust and confidence, some of which became national issues.
On reflection, it seems to me that there are two dimensions to trust and confidence. I call them the horizontal and the vertical. The first is well understood, the second is often overlooked; and we don’t always appreciate the critical relationship between the two.
The horizontal is the need to re-establish a good relationship with the public who are being served. When things have gone wrong there is often the need for an apology to be made for past wrongs. This has to be an honest apology, by which we mean there has to be an acceptance of the unvarnished truth about culture or conduct, and a deep desire on the part of the organisation to change behaviours and practices for the better, the apology without the desire to change is dishonest and cynical.
An apology is a performative action designed to start to change a relationship that has gone sour or has broken down, but it becomes hollow if the organisation making the apology is not sincere and makes little effort to change – and sooner or later that becomes apparent. People want apologies for what happened in the past, but they also look beyond the apology at how the organisation subsequently behaves.
This is where the Metropolitan police are in something of a bind. They are finding themselves having to apologise not once but repeatedly for the failings of some officers as they work their way through a number of misconduct investigations. The result is that each new apology begins to sound less convincing. It has to be done; but perhaps it has to be done with a form of words that is simpler rather than something more fulsome each time – ‘we are sorry’ rather than ‘deeply sincere’, ‘absolutely heartfelt’, ‘our thoughts go out to’. This all wears a little thin after a while.
The second dimension – the vertical – is sometimes overlooked but without it, the work of re-building public trust will falter and fail. As well as attending directly to the relationship with the public, we need to understand what happens to an organisation itself when wrong doing is uncovered and admitted. Morale is affected.
People do not like the idea that they may be working for an organisation that has to apologise to the public it serves. An organisation’s confidence in itself also has to be re-established, and that is often easier said than done. It requires each individual to accept what has been uncovered and through their own life and work to be the light that is needed in dark times. Unless this vertical dimension is also tackled, the apology will not be sufficiently grounded. Whatever policies and proposals are adopted, real change and progress will not be made.
Crucially, the restoration and retention of public trust and confidence will depend on both the vertical and the horizontal happening together.
And trust and confidence is never a destination. It is always a journey. It can always be disrupted or reversed.
Can it be done? I think we have seen the police service in South Yorkshire undertake that journey.
We have been awarded £1.05m by the Home Office to do more to tackle anti-social behaviour (ASB) in South Yorkshire. ASB is a national problem and although police recorded ASB has been falling in the county, it is still blighting many lives and communities. It ranges from fly-tipping (a local authority responsibility) to the noise, nuisance and mayhem caused by people on quad bikes. Although much is already being done to combat it, this additional funding is very welcome.
The present award has to be divided between our four local authority areas – Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield – and the actions collectively are called Operation Civitas. We are required to identify ASB hot spots and direct activities to them. Police and partners have drawn up lists of 12 hot spots in each district and these will be subject now – among other things – to increased patrolling by the police and other uniformed authorities. This additional high visibility patrolling has already begun. On Friday I met local councillors, the police, a council official and a representative of children’s services for one of these areas – Highfields – in Adwick Town Hall, Doncaster.
ASB is a serious matter because it is so relentless and causes great distress to many individuals and communities. The councillors in Adwick gave me a graphic account of everything that blights this part of their ward – the rubbish that is dumped, the fires deliberately started, the windows smashed, the vehicles damaged, including police cars. They also explained the serious under reporting -because people fear reprisals if they do.
I hope the additional measures police and partners will be taking will have a deterrent effect and lead to a reduction in ASB in the months ahead in the 48 hotspots identified across the county. We shall also be monitoring what happens so that we can learn more about what works. We want to see ASB reduced and not simply displaced and moved elsewhere.
Driving through and between a number of South Yorkshire small towns and villages over the past few weeks I began to notice something I had not really thought about before – honesty boxes. These are where people sell home grown produce leaving it displayed and unattended at the farm or garden gate with a suggested price and rely on the honesty of passing customers to put the right money in the box.
I say honesty ‘box’, and some were – brightly or beautifully painted in some cases. But several of the receptacles I saw were not boxes at all – cracked saucers, tin cans, even an old hat. The produce included eggs, honey, vegetables and fruit. In every case there was no one to be seen. The sellers relied completely on the honesty of the customers. I imagine it was most helpful if people had the right money and did not need change. (I have yet to see a machine for accepting credit cards.)
What I find interesting is that I have never had anyone report thefts from honesty boxes as a crime. This seems surprising given the cost-of-living crisis and the fact that we have had thefts from food banks. As I remarked upon in a recent blog, the force lead chaplain, the Revd Derek Pamment, had his church at Balby broken into several times in recent months with the thief being captured on CCTV. The man was not after money – I imagine the church keeps no money on the premises in any case – but food. He broke in and stole food on several nights. (This was strange because had he come during the day, he would have been given the food for free anyway.)
So do honesty boxes work? Are people honest? I have not heard anything to the contrary. Or is this just another case of under reported crime?