The Northern Ireland Audit Office has called on the Policing Board to re-introduce clear and specific targets for the PSNI’s performance in a critical report into the governance of policing.
Auditor-General Kieran Donnelly found that 40 of the 44 performance standards included in the 2012-2013 Policing Plan “lack sufficient clarity as to the degree of improvement required and the timeframe within which it is to be achieved.”
These standards only specified that an increase or decrease was required e.g. reductions in overall crime, burglaries and anti-social behaviour incidents. There would clearly be a large practical difference between a 1 per cent decrease and a 50 per cent decrease in each of these categories.
Some were “expressed in very high level or general terms” e.g. to put into practice the procurement strategy. The commitment to “develop our ability to communicate using the internet” was viewed as vague. The four quantified road safety targets were to be met by 2020 and had “limited meaning” in 2012-2013 as there were no interim targets.
The board previously used exact numbers in its targets but has moved to a “narrative-based performance assessment”. This is similar to the approach used by An Garda Síochána. The PSNI had said that numeric targets could, in certain cases, have a “detrimental effect on improving performance” particularly when there was a degree of guesswork and a small number of outputs.
“I acknowledge that setting numeric targets can be difficult and does involve a degree of uncertainty,” Donnelly stated in his report. “However, I do not see that as a justification for not setting any target levels at all.” Targets help to highlight the level of performance expected from a service. They also help to create “a clear sense of focus, priority and timeframe”.
A more holistic approach would involve reviewing progress in tackling all types of crime each year (not just those highlighted as priority areas in the Policing Plan) and also progress on other aspects of police work e.g. services to victims of crime.
The Policing Board’s annual report would also provide a commentary on variations between target and achievement and/or significant changes in performance from earlier years. Time series data would assess and report on performance trends and the PSNI’s performance would be benchmarked with similar forces in Great Britain.
In population terms, Northern Ireland is closest to the Essex and Hampshire constabulary areas. The province’s volume of crime is similar to that found in Essex, Kent, Lancashire, Merseyside and South Yorkshire.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott has pledged to look at how the PSNI can help the Policing Board to improve the methodology. PSNI officers have traditionally been sceptical of benchmarking as it fails to take the threat of terrorism and public disorder into account.
In response, the Policing Board has assured the Audit Office that “quantified and time-bounded performance standards” will be included in future policing plans. Progress will be monitored by the board’s Audit and Risk Management Committee which is chaired by UUP MLA Ross Hussey.