Oversight of police reform in Ireland

The recent and final progress report of the Irish Policing Authority on the implementation of extensive recommendations for reform in the Garda Inspectorate’s report, Changing Policing in Ireland, conveys a disappointing picture of the pace and direction of much-needed police reform in Ireland

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A relentless series of corruption, neglect and mismanagement scandals in Irish policing over the past few decades has generated a stream of reports and recommendations from external bodies and inquiries. These can be traced at least as far back as the voluminous reports of the Morris Tribunal of Inquiry in the first decade of this century, and there is still more in the pipeline. The reports and recommendations are paralleled by a history of pretence, obfuscation and incoherence in the implementation of badly needed police reform.

Arguably, the most comprehensive body of analysis and recommendations for reform in the history of the Garda Síochána is contained in the Garda Inspectorate’s report Changing Policing in Ireland (December 2015). Its 442 pages provide detailed and pragmatic recommendations for change aimed at achieving and maintaining the highest levels of efficiency and effectiveness across all aspects of the structure, operation and deployment of the Garda. This report is widely acclaimed as an excellent blueprint for change, equipping the Garda with the capacity to deliver an efficient and effective policing service in Ireland today and for the foreseeable future.

Most of the Inspectorate’s recommendations were accepted by the government and the Garda which adopted a Modernisation and Renewal Programme as the vehicle for implementation. Following its establishment in 2016, the independent Policing Authority was charged by the government with the task of monitoring, assessing and reporting back on Garda progress in implementing the reform recommendations. The Authority had duly produced six progress reports when the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was published in September 2018. The Authority was advised by the government in December 2018 that the Modernisation and Renewal Programme was superseded by A Policing Service for the Future, a ‘High Level Implementation Plan’ drawn up to implement the recommendations of the Commission’s report (see ‘Implementing police reform in Ireland‘). A Policing Service for the Future is now the plan for reform of the Garda and policing generally over the next four years. Accordingly, the Policing Authority’s seventh report, published in February 2019, was its final report on Garda progress on implementing the Modernisation and Renewal Programme. This little potted summary conveys at least part of the reason why real Garda reform has been such a perplexing and frustrating subject for so long.

The Policing Authority’s final implementation report makes sobering reading. It finds that, more than three years later, the majority of the reform recommendations in the Inspectorate’s Changing Policing in Ireland report are still outstanding and relevant. This does not instill confidence in the capacity of Garda management or the government to drive the breadth and depth of reform that is so urgently needed.

Although the Authority found commendable examples of personal commitment and drive within the Garda to secure change through implementation of the recommendations, these are disparate and isolated. Reform progress is being hampered by the tendency to hide behind the monitoring of individual project milestones at the expense of a substantive focus on evidencing and assessing Garda outputs and activities.

The absence of a strategic vision for the organisation in key areas is a particular obstacle in the implementation of change. There is still no settled view articulated as to what the expanded Garda workforce will look like, how it will be recruited, trained and organised, and how best it can be effective for the community. There is no strategic framework to guide a demand analysis, an assessment of the skills gaps or the business needs of the organisation.

The significant increase in the size and composition of the force (800 new members approved in 2016) has not been accompanied by articulation of a vision as to how those new resources will be used to deliver a more effective policing service. Insufficient attention has been given to the demands and opportunities of recruitment, diversity, training and supervision in respect of the large intake of new personnel. Equally, there has been no re-imagining of how the several categories of Garda personnel might best perform their respective roles in order to realise the potential for complementarity envisaged in the decision to grant the extra resources.

The Policing Authority found systemic weaknesses in the Garda approach to implementing reform. Too frequently, recommendations for change from external sources are accepted quickly with little assessment as to the feasibility of their achievement. This has led to the Garda repeatedly over-promising and under-delivering. Planning for change has proceeded without sufficient consideration of organisational capacity. Similarly, insufficient attention has been, and continues to be, given to key enablers of change; most notably: human resources, ICT, accommodation, training and finance. In the Authority’s view, they are not being placed at the centre of the change effort. A continued failure to tackle capacity in these areas will inhibit the success of any planned change.

Planning, itself, has been “siloed”, and this has resulted in an inability to assess the overall resource demand, identify interdependencies and prioritise within the Garda. There is too much focus on the outcomes of individual projects, and the resource demands of individuals who shout the loudest, at the expense of a coherent view and delivery of overall priorities and outcomes. A costed annual policing plan expressing the organisation’s priorities and development commitments is needed. This would give reassurance that the full resource requirements have been assessed, understood and secured, or at least that choices have been made.

The Authority found that frontline policing has not felt the benefits or effects of the change agenda articulated in the Modernisation and Renewal Programme. There is a disconnect between the centre and the frontline on the rollout of that agenda. Gardaí on the ground feel that key concerns, expressed repeatedly, around fleet, accommodation, equipment and uniforms have gone unheeded. Despite the completion of a culture audit within the organisation, it seems that little tangible attention has been given to the articulation of the optimum culture for the Garda, including identification of the desired behaviours that would support such a culture and those that would not.

It must also be appreciated that (for very good reason) policing in Ireland has been deluged in recent years with copious and extensive recommendations for reform emanating from a range of sources. A perception that the recommendations are externally driven can undermine the sense of organisational ownership and endorsement which, in turn, can sap motivation for rigorous implementation. Moreover, as noted by the Policing Authority, many of the source reports and recommendations are considered without reference to each other, with the result that some can overrule or even conflict with prior recommendations. While the Authority does not expressly say so, it would seem that churning out recommendations for change has become an end in itself; a substitute for actual reform, or an exercise in conveying the pretence of change.

Overall, the Policing Authority’s final progress report on the implementation of the reform recommendations in the Inspectorate’s Changing Policing in Ireland conveys a familiar picture of a Garda organisation that has yet to find the imagination and capacity to reform. The problems confronting the force have been charted in comprehensive detail by a seemingly endless series of inquiries and reports. Recommendations for addressing those problems run into the hundreds. Government and Garda management have accepted most of those recommendations and supposedly have implemented (or are implementing) them. Extensive legislative reforms to Garda structures have been effected. Substantial new resources in terms of personnel, finance, equipment and powers have been provided. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It remains to be seen whether the switchover to the implementation of the reforms emanating from the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland will make any difference. The mere fact that the whole reform process has been subject to such arbitrary and irrational decision-making does not give much cause for confidence. Perhaps the real problem is that, despite the optics, there is still a lack of political and institutional will to deliver meaningful change. The experience of the past two decades suggests that too much energy and resources are being invested in conveying the appearance of action and change, and not enough into its substantive delivery. Meanwhile, real control over policing in Ireland remains comfortably in the hands of narrow established interests.

Download the May 2019 edition of Criminal Justice Notes