UK police overtime, causes, effects and cure.

The police are first in line for sweeping cuts, in particular with regard to spiralling overtime costs. Out trot the usual calls for review teams, working parties, regulation overhaul and a host of other non-person causal effects creating a system that has been described as madness.

Police overtime is no different to any other kind of overtime, but in the public sector it can develop an institutional shell that becomes very resilient to normal business-like intervention. The first danger is drawing attention to something when you have no intention of doing anything about it. For example a joint report by the Chief Constable and Treasurer of the Northumbria Police Authority in February 2003 set out the procedure to reduce the overtime bill in accordance with National Guidelines. A modest Police Negotiation Board (PNB) target of 15% reduction with the usual exemptions and exclusions followed. Four years later the Northumbria police overtime stood at a little over £23M, or put another way during a ten year period it had increased by 549% – the biggest increase of any UK police force.

On average police overtime nationally has increased by 100% to stand at over £440M. This is in addition to other invested costs which has grown police resources during the same period by between 12%-30% depending how you do the counting. The report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) makes some sense of the number crunching that goes on. It also highlights the disconnect between increasing resources by over half, while hiking overtime (a strategy when resources are insufficient) into the stratosphere.

So here we are again. Attention is focused on reducing the police overtime bill, the similar PNB 15% is being targeted as a respectable attempt to rein in costs, and as mentioned earlier a raft of factors (that have little or no impact on overtime anyway) need urgent review. So what will happen now? Given the police overtime is currently running at 48.3% we know it will total over £656M by 2016. If the same institutional shell of the past 10 years is allowed to harden further it will be much worse. Changing a few health and safety culture issues, notice periods on days-off changes and even shift patterns (an old favourite) will not dent this shell. We will see new forces enter the field as the operations frontline will extend all the way back to HR, perhaps even an e-HR, and beyond. Intelligence-led or otherwise all this will do is make police resources more reliant on process that only drive up costs.

Police overtime, like all overtime, is not a bad thing thing. It is bad when it spirals out of control; and happens when the scheduling horizon of staff resources is too short. I don’t mean 12 month rosters – that’s not planning that’s a pattern. Nothing more nothing less. When police deployment is being pushed around in spreadsheets – pencil behind the ear – in monthly chunks, or worse by a system no one understands, high staff costs are assured – and ripe for exploitation at any level.

Demand-led deployment? Already been done – Accenture and Home Office Circular 2002. Dedicated police resource managers – already recommended a decade ago. Variable shedule arrangements? already done to death but 12 hour shifts are popular. The latest initiative surrounding workforce modernization produced a useful 101 social science paper on research methods, and a web site shadow peppered with broken and outdated links from a time there may have been belief. In fact there is a rich seam of research that any “pan-handler” having the energy can sift through for any nugget of argument they want. Some are still talking about a 10 year plan – they don’t even have 10 months.

So what would be a sensible thing to do?. First a visit to the City of London Police, Norfolk and Northamptonshire Police and find out what they are doing. Three forces that not only kept overtime costs down to pre 10 year levels, but reduced them even lower. Second, when staff costs of a modest police unit of 35 sworn officers costs over £2M in assets a year, lets start treating this as a serious operations management skill not an admin function – and that does not preclude civilian staff delivering those skills. If you can scale the management skill so much the better. Finally extend the scheduling horizon at least 6 months ahead of the game, 9 months or longer even better – even fewer suprises! Coordination, communication and control delivered by those closest the problem I guarantee will transform the way you do business.

Alternatively we can all wait for a public debate about priorities and choices.

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