Do lower crime figures over-simplify the public sector efficiency debate?

In an article for The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ this week, former Police Minister Nick Herbert pointed to new figures that showed a reduction in crime to its lowest level in three decades despite significant reductions to the police. This, Mr Herbert claimed, is proof that it is possible for the public sector to do more with less, and that a need to make savings had forced the police to identify and address inefficiencies – a lesson for other areas of the public sector, including the NHS.

To be fair, the figures did indeed show a reduction in levels of crime that the Government has, quite reasonably claimed as a major success. Equally, all the evidence from the NHS points to the fact that supplying a public service with an endless supply of cash will not guarantee results, and one of the goals of the so-called ‘Nicholson Challenge’ (requiring the NHS to save £20 billion by 2015) is that eliminating inefficiencies within the health service will also foster greater innovation and the improved delivery of care.

That said, simply grabbing at reduced crime figures as a sign of success is perhaps an over simplification. As the New Statesman has noted, crime figures have fallen with reasonable regularity in recent decades, and there could also be a number of practical reasons why the figures have shown such a decrease, including the use of alarms and other technology to prevent thefts and new recording practices to measures instances of crime.

But this also risks missing a critical question, namely whether we are at risk of prioritising short-term success over long-term public service delivery. More savings need to be found, but the challenge is to reconcile this with issues such as workforce refreshment and training. In the case of the police, officers in some instances already have to work seven or more consecutive days – and it would be a mistake to think that such a situation is sustainable. The danger for this and subsequent governments, as always, will be stretching the elastic of public services without it breaking.


Chris Rogers