Comment: Need to involve the public in Police Planning Process

Devyani Srivastava is a programme officer, focusing on police reforms and access to justice within the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) – an international, non-government organisation working towards greater transparency and accountability in the criminal justice sector.

Active in the Maldives since 2008, the CHRI seeks to realise increased demand for democratic policing through technical assistance in drafting police-related laws and policies, regularly publishing reports, intervening in court when necessary, and conducting trainings of police personnel across ranks.

The Maldives Police Service (MPS) recently launched its five-year Strategic Plan for 2014-2018. The document, available on the police website, lays down the police service’s key goals and priorities in how it seeks to police crime and the country over the next five years.

The MPS is a pioneer in South Asia in strategic planning, a process that enables police organisations to shape a vision for policing, identify precise goals and targets against the vision, and put in place a system to evaluate implementation and performance against the set goals. Most strategic planning frameworks centre on the drafting of a Strategic Plan which serves as a roadmap outlining policing goals and targets within a given time period, usually three to five years. This is the approach adopted by the MPS.

MPS’s current plan is its third in a short span of ten years since its separation from the military in 2004. This shows the leadership recognises the importance of strategic planning in bolstering police service delivery, organisational efficiency and police accountability. The process itself has improved since the first plan came out in 2007. From reading like a vision document with a wish-list of projects, the plans have become more targeted and contextual.

The process has also become more consultative. The current plan was formulated following a 3-day workshop involving 85 staff including department heads, managerial staff, and executive staff officers deliberating over crime trends and strategic priorities. In a further improvement, the department recently put out an evaluation of its performance in 2012 against targets laid down in the previous Strategic Plan 2011-2013 (also available on their website), and promises to prepare annual business plans and performance reviews for the current plan.

While these are steps in the right direction, much more needs to be done to make the planning process more inclusive, open and transparent. The most significant missing link in the planning process is consultation of the public.  This must be integrated into future planning as a matter of priority.

Decentralise further

First, the planning process should be decentralised further within the organisation. So far, the exercise involves seeking inputs from department heads, managerial staff, and divisional commanders. Junior ranks and staff at the police stations are not involved in any meaningful way, when they are the ones who have a daily interface with local communities, are the first point of contact in case of any trouble, and are directly answerable to the people when something goes wrong.

Their input regarding levels of crimes, difficulties on the ground, and allocation of resources needs to be taken into account if police response to crime is to improve, especially given that police stations in Maldives oversee a number of islands, each scattered from the other. Planning must start at the police station level and feed into action plans at the divisional level, which then filter into the national-level plan.

Just as the MPS assess itself as an organisation on the basis of its strategic plan, the performance of divisional units should be evaluated based on their action plans. This way, both planning and performance evaluation are decentralized and ultimately closer to ground realities.

Bring in public consultation

Second, the process needs to become more open and transparent. Unlike in other jurisdictions where public input and suggestions are actively sought in police planning, the Maldives Police is yet to involve the public in formulating its goals and targets. Information is made available in the public domain only after the Plans are finalised and launched in the media and uploaded on the police website.

A study by my organisation, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, on the implementation of the first Strategic Plan 2007-2011, showed how even other relevant stakeholders including the Police Integrity Commission and civil society organisations were involved only at a later stage when the plan had already been drafted. The public at large was not involved at all. A clear disconnect was visible during our research between the police and other stakeholders over how projects had been prioritised and how crime had been categorised.

The absence of public consultation is a serious limitation of the process. Ultimately, it is the public which is affected by crime and relies on the police for more safety – they must have a say in the police’s planning for better policing and safety. Reaching out to people, especially those living in far flung islands and atolls with varying crime patterns, will improve overall quality of policy-making by identifying practical problems and unintended effects.

Relying solely on police officers’ feedback serving in the islands excludes public feedback, especially of vulnerable communities, which is critical to improving policing. Communities will also become more informed of the kinds of arrangements and measures being put in place to address their issues and understand better how they themselves can contribute to the success of these measures.

A range of methods such as discussion forums held regularly at the local level; public perception surveys to gauge public confidence in the police; user satisfaction surveys to understand problems in service delivery and identify solutions; focused group discussions for example with the youth, elderly citizens, and women to understand needs and expectations of different segments of society; and social media may be employed to understand community expectations and problems.

It is not easy to carry out inclusive and extensive public consultation. It takes time, organisation, manpower, and intellectual resources. It requires regular and constant flow of information between the police and the public, another reason why local units such as police stations need to be involved more closely. Police must provide accessible feedback on the results of consultation, decisions that have been made and suggestions that were rejected so people consider it a meaningful exercise. But making the investments in this kind of planning process is the best way to build public trust and also get to better policing.

Finally, implementing these steps in a systematic manner, and not leaving it to the discretion of individual officers, is crucial to their success. In fact, many countries (UK, Northern Ireland, Canada) have codified strategic planning into their police laws, thereby making it a statutory requirement, and have developed elaborate rules to guide the process including methods of engagement with the community. Maldives Police must move in this direction in order to enable accountable and responsive policing take roots in the island country and give meaning to the promise of rule of law enshrined in its constitution.