Interview with Matt Baggott: his view on PSNI transformation, confidence in policing, over-regulation, vocation & faith

We usually hear public figures speaking in sound bites. At most ten minute interviews about some topic of the day. We rarely get to listen in as they explain what motivates them to do their job and reflect on their rationale or approach.

PSNI Chief Constable Matt BaggottThe PSNI Chief Constable has been given advice on what he should do and how he should do it from before he arrived in Northern Ireland and it will no doubt continue until long after he has departed. But what does he single out as the achievements of the PSNI and the transformation it has carried out under his tenure?

I interviewed Matt Baggott last Thursday and will split the results over this post and another tomorrow morning. One advantage of a blog is that you can read his answers at length and also listen to much of our conversation. Another advantage is that as reader of Slugger, the Chief Constable will see your responses!

Over the hour he came across as calm and measured, never aggressively defensive. He seemed assured and confident that his approach to policing in Northern Ireland is the right one. He took many opportunities to praise the integrity and professionalism of the people working in his organisation, and spoke out against the dangers of any celebritisation of policing. He displayed a restlessness at the inability of other agencies within the criminal justice family to keep up with the pace of reform he desires for the PSNI, frustration at the duplication of regulation and reporting, and a disappointment at the low level of political buy-in to improve disadvantaged areas experiencing deprivation and alienation.

He seemed at peace with the fact that he and his organisation are frequently criticised. One of the most frequent negative assessments I hear about Matt Baggott is one that asserts that the Policing Board selected him as a peace time Chief Constable rather than one equipped to handle the dissident threat that escalated soon after he took up the job. But the Chief Constable emphasised that the need for personal and neighbourhood policing is even greater in the face of terrorist threat and that the strategy is not wrong.

The Policing Board unanimously selected him as Chief Constable back in August 2009. He explained to me what the boards priorities were for him.

The two major priorities the board set out was firstly to take forward the whole policing with the community ethos, and secondly to do that within a budget that was rapidly diminishing. So the whole concept of delivering progressive change but at the same time also producing value for money.

Three or four years on, what has changed?

I think progress has been huge. Sometimes it is only when you take a step back that you realise just how much has been achieved. Not just in terms of the outcomes of policing but also in relation to the way policing is being delivered and the whole framework of accountability and what I would call business management, which is the skills and the governance of public money in a way that delivers far greater success and outcomes and is more sustainable into the future.

I would say that in summary we have become a much more capable organisation, not just in dealing with local issues and in the responsiveness in answering two thousand calls a day, but also in the entire area of protecting people in Northern Ireland from serious crime, whether that’s people trafficking or organised crime. If you look at outcomes across that whole piece, they have all improved.

The PSNI’s approach can be summed up in three Ps: Personal, Professional and Protective.

The Personal is about that policing with the community. It’s about delivering a policing service that is consistent, responsive, accessible, hugely reassuring, and to some degree is the narrative of truth about the values and integrity of the PSNI …

Within a very short space of time we put an additional 600 police officers into neighbourhood and response. We mapped out exactly where our most vulnerable areas were and increased the level of policing in those areas quite deliberately, we challenged the very way in which policing is being delivered from some massive changes to our call centres to some huge redistribution of that through to slashing the bureaucracy and giving police officers back professional discretion.

If you recall back in 2010 there was a very public debate about that between myself and the PPS [Public Prosecution Service] to cut the regulation, to cut the bureaucracy, and make our services much more flexible according to the needs of the victim. I introduced call backs, and a whole raft of commitments which were very public, and now we report those through letterboxes every three months, every letterbox in Northern Ireland. And last year we rang, five thousand victims back and we hold ourselves accountable for that degree.

Officers exercising discretion seems to be popular with victims of less serious crime.

It doesn’t any more. Because we cut it out. If it’s a local matter, and it’s an offence of less serious harm, police officers now – we set targets in the policing plan – can exercise their discretion. And of the thousands of people we’ve rung back to say “how was that discretion exercised?” we have a 97% satisfaction level. So we’ve cut enormous expense out of the system, we’ve cut out a lot of time-consuming processes, but more importantly professional policing is being delivered in neighbourhoods in a way that is much more responsive. And that’s a massive change here both in terms of how the justice system is delivered [and] in relation to confidence in policing.

Part of cost reduction has involved closing physical police stations to free up money and put officers back on the street. But do the public appreciate that fewer buildings and structure doesn’t necessary mean less policing?

I think it’s always very emotive when you have to shut buildings because people associate a building with a policing service. And you have to work really hard at that because actually what delivers great service at a time of crisis or a team of people that can actually pick a long term problem like young people and drinking or that sort of thing is actually people on the streets. So what we’ve done locally is to explain and identify why that police station is being shut, even to the fact to say that two people came in last week, but what you’ve got here actually is a neighbourhood team that delivered this.

And I guess to some degree that stands alongside colleagues have been doing here around communication. Because I think one of the other great advances of policing is to communicate what we’re doing. We’re nowhere near where we want to be yet, but we employ seven people locally to work on the social media side. We’ve got Twitter, blogs, and on top of that I’m reporting personally as the Chief Constable through every letterbox every three months. And the feedback from that has been very, very positive indeed.

We’re trying to get out there more to explain, not just in a mechanistic way, but really explain what we’re about and why we’re doing it.

What about the perceptions of hard to reach communities and hard to reach people who have traditionally feared or distrusted the police?

I think in some areas, because of history and experience and huge issues of deprivation and alienation, that becomes very problematic because irrespective of how hard you try for some the police will always be the outworkings of the state as opposed to a supportive service for them. What I will say though is – and I’ve visited a lot of these areas privately – there isn’t any place I’ve been to where I haven’t seen policing growing in relationship to the people there. Sometimes that’s very quiet as opposed to being celebrated, but I don’t think you’ll find a deprived area or a disadvantaged area where there aren’t respected officers working.

I’ve been very clear about this from day one. At the moment we don’t have in the most disadvantaged areas – suffering from high suicide rates, health inequality, a lack of purpose – we don’t have either the political buy-in but neither do we have the long term vision and the social planning framework which you need in an area like that to improve people’s lives alongside the policing. So that’s a big gap.

But I have to say that I never expected to see police officers riding mountain bikes and I do now in some of these most vulnerable areas. Enormous courage by the way. When you look at the attacks on police officers still, even in the past few months, to be delivering an ever growing community policing – personal policing – is a significant exercise in courage and tenacity and I applaud colleagues who are doing that.

At the recent Sinn Fein ard fheis, Gerry Kelly tore into Matt Baggott saying that he had “lost the confidence of the Republican and Nationalist people”, questioned his impartiality and said that “differential policing must stop”. So does the Chief Constable think he deserves more political support?

I recognised within a few weeks of coming here that the political context was much more robust than it was anywhere that I served in England. Probably with the exception of some of the inner city areas – Brixton, Peckham – which are very problematic areas with a huge amount of anxiety about policing. But the political atmosphere and the way its done here is a lot more overtly in your face. And that was apparent within a few months when if you remember I said in a very naïve way “the border is artificial in policing terms”. And it got a reaction. People will hang over your words and you learn quickly …

My job here as Chief Constable is to do the right things. I think policing has played an enormous part in getting to the point of devolution and now it’s playing a part in being the cement and foundation for future stability. And confidence in policing is incredibly important because it does affect the political narrative. I understand that entirely. But I’m not here to be populist. And I’m not here to be swayed by political rhetoric. What I am here to do is to make people’s lives better and play a part when I’m here as Chief Constable in doing that. And I’ll be very clear. I will be judged on outcomes, not by placards. I’ll be judged on what we do in terms of the progress of policing in delivering from the serious to the local and I will also be held accountable for compliance with the law.

Because when I sit in front of the policing board the three things they hold me accountable for as an independent, impartial Chief Constable, is firstly the effectiveness of policing which is exactly what are we doing and how are we delivering it; secondly, value for money which is in a recession and a rapidly diminishing budget how are you achieving more by modern business practice in what you are delivering and are you willing to reform and challenge the status quo and there’s plenty of evidence that I do that consistently; and thirdly, are you compliant with the Human Rights Act. It’s sometimes a little bit too convenient for people to set those things aside when the politics becomes a bit more problematic. But I can’t do that because I am the impartial Chief Constable.

But is he disappointed that they do set those things aside and then go on to give him a hard time?

Sometimes I’m disappointed because I know the integrity of this organisation. I know what we’re achieving. And I know locally the huge that’s being made. And I know there are areas where we have to work harder still. There’s huge areas of disadvantage and deprivation and there is still distrust and sometimes political mistrust about our motivation. But I keep coming back to the point, people judge me on the outcomes and the realities, not on the politics. I’m big enough and old enough now to realise that sometimes you just have to go with that.

Victims satisfaction levels are high, and surveys point to increases in public confidence in the PSNI. Matt Baggott suggests that 65% confidence “is pretty good comparatively with other parts of the public sector and private sector”.

In relation to the second of the three Ps – Professional – the Chief Constable points to improvements in accountability, opening up all the internal performance data to the Policing Board, and building the staff performance review system and promotion processes around evidence of public confidence.

There are very few organisations that self impose such a great degree of change around quality of service. That was deliberate.

And where I haven’t had the same degree of support from other agencies I’ve done it quietly if I’ve had to challenge them, but then I’ve done it publicly. You’ve seen that with the criminal justice system. Sometimes the pushback I’ve given in a measured way.

This might be novel for a public organisation, but it’s very much business as usual in the private sector. Surely about time the PSNI were doing it?

Probably. And in fairness, part of the job the Policing Board gave me was to look outwards and bring in modern business practice. The other thing that is a significant change – and all credit again to my colleagues for this – has been to look at the big functions and the big spends and implement major reviews. So whether that’s on transport, or procurement – I involve non-executive directors to help me with that though our own internal audit processes – we have completely transformed again the value for money of our services. And that has been working with a diminishing budget in a recession, an incredibly important part of what we do.

So we look at technology, we look at processes, we look at contract management we look at managed services, even the use of temporary staff which is incredibly controversial but actually is incredibly necessary when you’re working with a diminished budget. And all of that again is reported back so it has to be justified. And in the controversial areas like temporary staff – we’re still waiting for the Public Accounts Committee to report, I’d nine hours in front of them but even that the PAC acknowledged that we’ve dramatically improved our governance of that.

So the financial management of the organisation is moved into much more of a private sector approach where I consider our shareprice to be confidence in policing. That’s what I look for.

Policing Board, Public Accounts Committee, Police Ombudsman, Department of Justice and the Justice Committee, Policing and Community Safety Partnerships, Criminal Justice Inspectorate, the Audit Office, as well as the Home Office, MI5 and ACPO being his ear at times. Is it possible for the police to be too accountable? Or over regulated?

My view is that with devolution came enormous potential. And getting to devolution of policing and justice was incredibly important and the benefits vastly outweigh the negatives. But what happens now of course is we haven’t taken anything away. So we have layers of accountability in the local domain here but also in terms of national security and Westminster I still have the same levels of meetings over there. So it is difficult. I have to manage Westminster and the needs of Westminster which has lots of meetings and structures and ministerial involvement, but I also have to manage here.

But the Chief Constable thinks it is time to review the amount of regulation and duplicate reporting.

I think at the moment there needs to be a review of the amount of inspection and regulation still. Because if you’re being tasked with transforming the way you deliver your services, you can’t keep on, many times a week, reporting those to different levels of the bureaucracy.

I think the PSNI has earned the right now to be more light touch in a lot of the regulation. Important issues, such as for example the way we manage the powers, the surveillance, the management of information, I absolutely applaud that. Looking at the way we’re spending our money is subject to public scrutiny. But there’s an awful lot of regulation that I think is duplicated now and perhaps could be removed.

Reform is slow in Northern Ireland:

Sometimes in Northern Ireland reform is slow because I have to work through decision making processes that are highly regulated and if I was a business a lot of the changes we want to make would have been made last year or the year before. But the truth is that we’re in line to deliver those efficiencies. And I’ve brought in experts from the private industry to help me do that. That again is a sign of reform with innovation.

He challenged my suggestion that there were no go areas in Northern Ireland where he couldn’t go and walk around.

There’s no no go areas in Northern Ireland. There are areas where it is more problematic, but there’s no no go areas.

There are certainly places where for him to be personally on the ground requires much greater security?

But they’re not no go areas. They’re more problematic areas. And to be honest in some of my quieter visits which I do quite a lot you find people actually welcome and embrace you even if they do it in a very private way because of the politics and difficulty.

Does anywhere else in the UK have that kind of atmosphere or such problematic areas?

Not in the same way of the terrorist threat. Let’s be clear about that. By way of contrast, when I was running Peckham we had three hundred robberies a month. We thought that was quite successful sometimes. So there are enormous problems of inner city deprivation, street gangs, high crime, murder which I suspect even now some parts of the UK in some of those cities the commanders might swap for what I have here, not for the terrorist threat, but the reality of what we call routine crime.

He added that police colleagues in some American cities face much more significant murder rates.

We have the lowest crime now for over fifteen years. Burglaries, robberies, business crime, crimes on the elderly, everything has dropped again in the last year to a new low.

Sustainable drops?

Yes. You have to look at unemployment. But at the moment – I come back to that Professional – I negotiated a four year planning cycle because if you are going to reform and change the way you do things you can’t do it in a one year cycle. So one of the big changes in terms of running the money and making things happen better was a four year process. And over the last three years, the drops in crime have been consistent. Which says something about the way we’re managing policing. But there will always be variables because clearly high unemployment does influence crime and there are issues beyond our control. But at the moment whether it’s road deaths or tackling the drugs trade we’re having significant success and more public buy in to that which is fantastic.

His first year leading the PSNI seems to have been the hardest. The last part of Patten saw a big reduction in the numbers and experience of officers in parallel with an uncertain budget settlement and a resurgent terrorist threat.

Patten was the deal and Patten delivered confidence in policing alongside quite a lot of regulation and I wouldn’t question any of that. But as an organisation I think we were very vulnerable because we’d lost numbers, we didn’t have budget and we had a threat re-emerge that people didn’t anticipate …

We went to the government … and negotiated a business case for additional quarter of a billion. It wasn’t given to me. We identified the gaps, we identified the need and we went to government and we presented the case, and it was a relentless pursuit of reinvesting money, in a recession. And we got £250 million. All of that has gone into paying for a significant upgrade in our ability to deal with terrorism and serious harm so we don’t do that at the expense of community policing.

Matt Baggott describes being a police officer as a “vocation”. He’s worked in The Met, West Midlands, as Chief Constable of Leicestershire Constabulary before his “Bosman transfer” to the PSNI, the “high spot” of his career.

It is a vocation being a police officer and I’m in my thirty sixth year of that now. And I’m as passionate about improving people’s lives. I have a heart for vulnerable, particularly the people that live in the most disadvantaged areas. And that’s been my background. I’ve run Peckham, areas of Brixton. I worked with social exclusion unit. I’ve delivered neighbourhood policing. I did that my choice. I did the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.

And there’s nothing more privileged than being the Chief Constable of the PSNI, particularly at a time when we got to the point of devolution and we have been developing long term capabilities in protecting people and keeping people safe. And that has an immense impact I think on the peace process when we do that with integrity. And that has been the high spot of my career.

So it’s a vocation. For me it’s also about faith. It’s about who I am as a person and I’ve never hidden that. It’s about by Christian calling too. But this is a privileged position at a time of change. I think it’s only when people look back at what the PSNI has done. I’ve got an incredibly able team of hugely committed people from the neighbourhood through to the senior command. I have never worked with better motivated people. So it’s a very special time of change.

On the topic of faith, one online commentator nicknames the Chief Constable as Pastor Baggott. How does his faith affect how he approaches the job and how he makes decisions?

People choose to give me nicknames. That’s for them.

Actually if someone calls me Pastor Baggott perhaps I might take that as a sign of encouragement. A pastor is someone that cares, who is compassionate, who is a shepherd, who drives the organisation forward. And actually, you know something, I quite like that because my job ultimately as the Chief Constable isn’t just a technical job. It is about improving the lives of everybody but it is also about particularly improving the lives of the most vulnerable. I think where my faith has shaped my view is because I do genuinely think if I achieve anything it will be about the most vulnerable. And it will be about people’s life opportunity.

For five years I led the neighbourhood policing transformation in the UK which was a great privilege but what was really important about that was through security, through confidence, through putting more policing into the most difficult areas we improved young people’s life opportunities so they got better educational equalities, their health inequalities got less, people suffer less from mental illness, suicide rates come down.

Would be like that to be his legacy?

Absolutely. That’s why I get frustrated when I don’t see the same degree of transformation change taking place in social planning. I’d like to see our new Community Safety Partnerships – all of them – tackling a couple of priorities which would be protecting the vulnerable elderly, and helping young people from alcohol misuse. If all of our CSPs did that collectively you would see a massive transformation. If we took our six most difficult deprived, disadvantaged areas, and put together proper, comprehensive improvement plans, we would transform the very nature of Northern Ireland very quickly.

But at the moment we’re too bogged down in some of the politics and not enough bogged down in how to improve the most vulnerable areas. I’ll keep stridently talking about this until it starts to happen.

He went on later in the interview to talk about “making policing more normal”.

The other job I have to do is to encourage people. Because I don’t do it in a way that’s loud, I’d much rather be judged on the outcomes and making policing more normal where in fact we’re just the police and we get on with it and we don’t have to go on the radio every day and in fact if it needs an Inspector to answer a problem they answer, if it needs a Chief Superintendent they answer it. So we’re much more used to dealing with problems without necessarily the Chief having to speak all the time. You know my approach, that’s not what I am, I don’t do that, I speak when I have to, when I feel I’ve got something to say.

Matt Baggot is now well into the fourth year of his contract. The Policing Board might invite him to stay on or they might not. Would he like to stay longer in Northern Ireland?

I think that’s far too early to judge. I’ll shortly have done four years here. It’s been four years of immense challenge, from the paramilitaries through to dealing with the past and all that legacy, through to improving people’s lives and dealing with a high degree of public expectation. I’m deeply proud of my colleagues because in all those areas we’ve been delivering. Doing it in a quiet way and a measured way and in a way that – basically in spite of the politics – keeps going on. And I think there is a growing political confidence in policing despite the events of the last three months. Sometimes you take a step back to go two steps forward and maybe sometimes this has to happen for a new political consensus to be reached …

We have the next phase of this to go. The three Ps, Personal policing, Professional policing, and being Protective, apply across the whole gambit of policing. I’m already looking four years ahead in terms of where the PSNI needs to be. My job as Chief is to set a very clear direction and look ahead and to shape the organisation to meet the challenges of the future. It is to have excellent governance and develop a really effective team. I’ve got a brilliant team here. I’ve really got a brilliant team.

I’ll post the second part of the interview tomorrow which will cover more contemporary issues including the flag protests, the PSNI’s request to hear the republican oral history archive tapes from Boston College’s Belfast Project, collusion, the G8 and social media.

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