If we had a time machine and could take a stroll down our local high street twenty years ago, we’d discover a place alive with activity. As well as shoppers hunting through famous outfits such as Woolworths, JJB Sports and Comet, we might see queues snaking at the local bank branch, someone waiting their turn outside the telephone box and couples scouring the travel agents’ window for a last minute, cut-price deal.
Today, it’s a different story. We can browse the entire planet’s products on our phones, make an Amazon purchase with the swipe of a finger and track our order online with precision. We can drive to out-of-town shopping malls or supermarkets where we can park, stay dry and get everything we need all in one trip. We bank increasingly online or by telephone, and buy our holidays online – rating our experiences for fellow travellers on TripAdvisor.
The world has changed and the companies that are thriving today understood that they needed to change with it. Driven by new technology, parts of our services sector have undergone a genuine revolution. Convenience is king – and to survive and be successful, our shops, banks and supermarkets have had to constantly evolve, adapting their business models in response to the changing attitudes and preferences of consumers.
This has seen successful companies closing uneconomical and underused shops and branches, investing in their online infrastructure and capability, and reaching out to customers with innovative advertising routed through social media, viral campaigns and interactive gaming. Smaller specialist retailers are closing down their stores but increasing their margins by offering their products to larger stockists and e-tailers. And as we demand higher standards of customer service across the board, this is being reflected in the renewed use of UK call centres, 24 hour services, and new staff training and incentivisation programmes.
Our public services have struggled to keep up with this revolution. In fact, many are still blindly pursuing the old, out-dated models. Take policing: there are 136 police stations in London, but some see fewer than seven visitors a day. Three times as many visitors enter police stations simply to hand in lost property or ask directions, rather than actually report crime. These stations are expensive – often large buildings, sitting on prime real estate and smack-bang in the middle of town. But if you gave the public a choice between more bobbies or more buildings, bobbies would win every time.
The fact that so many police stations are underused means that the public have already made important choices about how they want to report crime and engage with the police. So now it’s time for the police to respond. The lessons from retail and banking are that people increasingly want fewer big service centres, more innovative avenues for engaging with services and stronger online presence for maximum convenience.
Policy Exchange’s new report, Rebooting the PC, is all about how to hardwire innovation into policing structures and cop culture. In it, we recommend that the police should close many outdated, expensive police stations and instead embed new contact points in shopping centres, supermarkets, hospitals and local shops. These would be places where people could report crime, discuss local concerns, deal with lost property, provide forms, make complaints and arrange police statements. Not only would this save money and thus protect officer numbers, it would also offer a much better service to the public – especially if services were provided in places like the Post Office, whose footprint and network would actually increase public access.
We also conceive of a new, modern version of the 1970s ‘TARDIS’ police box, as made famous in Doctor Who. These would be technologically-enabled police contact points, featuring two-way audio-visual technology that would allow people to communicate directly with police staff online, without having to be physically present. These are already used successfully in Rotterdam (where there is even a 3D Virtual Police Officer) and could now be translated for the UK context.
There is a growing gap between the quality of customer service we now take for granted in our everyday lives and that which we receive when we come into contact with public services. If we don’t start to close it, we run the risk of consistently dashing people’s expectations, frustrating aspiration and fuelling disillusionment with government.
Innovation in policing might take the form of a TARDIS, but we don’t need a time machine to step into the future. We just need to learn the right lessons from the revolutions in retail and banking, and listen to what the public are already telling us about the way they want to engage with the police. If we do, we’ll begin to meet the public where they are, dealing with people in a way that suits them and really putting them in the driving seat. That way, we can start the important work of rebooting the PC.
Max Chambers is head of crime and justice at Policy Exchange.