A few days ago my colleague Ann Bird wrote a blog post on how Metropolitan Police officers were being given training in how to write emails in such a way that they could be understood.
I heard an interview on the BBC “Today” programme this morning that suggests to me the police need help in how to speak, not just in how to write.
The interview, conducted by Sarah Montague, was about how reductions in police numbers were affecting policing and what changes were required in response. The interviewee was Chris Sims, Chief Constable of West Midlands Police.
Rarely have I heard an interview filled with so much gobbledygook. It was a stunning example of how the robotic uttering of ‘management-speak’ serves only to distance the speaker from the public at large. Anybody listening who does not hold the police in high regard would have had their views reinforced by this interview.
Sarah Montague’s first question was about the reduction in police numbers.
Chief Constable Sims’ reply was that the reductions had presented “really significant challenges particularly with regard to shifting our resources towards safeguarding”
What on earth does that mean?
First of all, what is “safeguarding”? Did he mean, “policing” or “protecting the public”? Your guess is as good as mine. If that is, indeed, what he meant, why should there be a need for “shifting” resources”? Isn’t that what the police are supposed to do anyway?
Then Mr Sims spoke about the need for “coping with the new pervasive technologies that drive customer demand”. What are “pervasive technologies”? I’m guessing here, but could he mean “online fraud” or “paedophiles tracking children on the Internet”?
As for “customer demand” – does this guy work for the police or Marks & Spencer?
A clearly baffled Sarah Montague then chipped in with a question rightly aimed at trying to get him to decode what he had just said.
Chief Constable Sims replied with: “There’s been a really decisive shift from street-based acquisitive crime to more complex private-based safeguarding issues like child sexual exploitation.”
I believe that even Alan Turing might have faced difficulty in decoding this little lot. Indeed, some listeners might have needed an Enigma machine to work out what “street-based acquisitive crime” means. Did he mean “mugging” or “car theft”? Who knows? I don’t think a lady who’s just had her handbag whipped off her shoulder in the street is going to ring 999 and say, “I’d like to report a street-based acquisitive crime, please”.
Furthermore, why is child sexual exploitation “private-based”? Surely, as recent court cases have shown, it’s a very public issue that should be dealt with as such by the police. It’s because it’s been allowed to remain private for so long that it’s become so prevalent.
Sarah, no doubt further perplexed, then asked how the police were doing, given their lower numbers.
In response, the Chief Constable announced that his police force had formed an “innovation partnership” with Accenture.
So that’s all right then. We can now go to bed at night and sleep soundly, confident that our homes will not be burgled because of an “innovation partnership with Accenture”. What on earth was he talking about?
Sarah, no doubt like most of her listeners, was clearly confused as to what the role of this private company would be. Indeed, many listeners might have been asking whether Accenture staff will now be in uniform on the streets of Birmingham doing the policing instead of the police themselves, such was the vagueness of language used by Mr Sims to describe the partnership.
The Chief Constable sought to clarify the situation by saying: “No, the private company are not the deliverers.” However, he went on to announce that, “policing will inevitably be a less street-based presence.”
Did he mean “fewer bobbies on the beat”?
If so, that’s going to worry a lot of people. However, have no fear. The Chief Constable then informed us that there was to be “a bigger and better digital offer to the public”.
Does this mean the police will be spending more time at their computers? Or, will coppers now be on the beat carrying iPads? Are their two-way radios going to be upgraded? Who knows?
Whatever it meant, these moves were all part of “setting out transformation plans for the next five years”. “Transformation plans?” This sounds a bit religious. Most people just want the police to do their job properly and not enter some kind of ill-defined “transformation” process.
The language used in this interview would give many listeners little confidence that the police are on their side. That’s how jargon and in-house mumbo-jumbo can contribute to distancing an organisation from the public it serves.
The giveaway was in the Chief Constable’s comment that the force wants to be “better able to manage the risk and harm that the public face”.
It’s that word “manage”. What the public want to hear are “real words” that they understand, namely that any “risk and harm” they face would be “prevented” or, if it’s not, then the “perpetrators” will be “caught”.
This interview left me with the clear impression that Chief Constable Sims spends more time in management meetings than he does fighting crime.
Interestingly, he mentioned the word “crime” only twice during the entire interview.