The Scottish Police Authority has recently and unexpectedly appointed Kenneth Hogg as Interim Chief Officer. Hogg joins the Authority on a twelve-month secondment from the Scottish Government, where he is currently Director for Local Government and Communities.
Hogg will replace John Foley, whose departure comes against a backdrop of criticism levelled at the governance and leadership of the SPA. An inspection by HMICS earlier this year reported ‘dysfunction in the relationship between the Chair and Chief Executive’, as well as fundamental weaknesses ‘in the capacity of the Chief Executive, senior managers and committee support services to provide the level of expert advice and governance support needed by the Board’. The management of the SPA has also drawn sharp criticism in the Scottish Parliament.
On the face of it Hogg’s appointment to the troubled SPA seems eminently sensible: A career civil servant with extensive experience in senior government, an architect of the design for a national police force and its governance body, and a thoroughly decent man. Who better to ‘put his foot on the ball’ and bring stability to a body that has drawn serious criticism from all quarters.
Another view, explained below, is that this is a high-risk strategy that could seriously undermine an organization that has struggled to establish its own authority and independence.
Clear blue water
Established under the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012, the SPA was created as a ‘buffer’ between government ministers and the police. Mindful of warnings that a single force would be vulnerable to political influence, the arrangement was intended to rule out direct political influence, put clear blue water between the two bodies, and allow the SPA to effectively hold the Chief Constable to account. Set against this background, Hogg’s appointment raises a range of concerns.
In the first instance, there is the matter of perception. Writing in the Review of Governance in Policing, outgoing SPA Chair Andrew Flanagan stated that ‘The SPA has yet to be seen to be sufficiently separate from Government or to fully establish its role and authority’. It is difficult to square this view with the appointment of a senior civil servant to the Authority, via a recruitment process targeted at police, government and SPA employees.
Yet to be clear, the issue extends beyond appearances. The crux of the matter is the Authority’s independence and its opaque relationship with the Scottish Government. In quieter moments, some Authority members have related the travails of the SPA to civil service influence and a lack of space to fully develop or assert its role. Relatedly, the fact that some Board members, while skilled and experienced in a range of areas, lack a detailed knowledge of operational policing is problematic and at times has precluded effective scrutiny. One ex-member has spoken openly of Government interference. In what is a challenging policing environment there are genuine concerns about the ability and willingness of Board Members to effectively challenge Police Scotland. These concerns sit uneasily with the appointment of a senior civil servant as Chief Officer to the Authority.
In many ways, the failure to secure an independent Police Authority relates to the politicisation of Scottish policing in the post-reform era. Criticism of Police Scotland or the Authority is frequently viewed by extension as criticism of the Scottish Government. The visibility (and newsworthiness) of the single force has also brought reputational considerations to the fore. In these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that the civil service has sought to protect the police service (and itself) from reputational damage – although it is worth noting that these control measures have largely failed to halt the continual volley of complaints.
This unresolved tension between protecting government on the one hand, and asserting the critical role of the Authority on the other, raises questions as to where Hogg’s loyalties will lie. Only two steps away from the role of Permanent Secretary, the seniority of Hogg’s current position in the Scottish Government should not be underestimated. Recall also that the position is a secondment and that he will likely return to the Scottish Government twelve months down the line. Will Hogg answer to the Chair, or will his first and perhaps intuitive loyalties lie with government, with the attendant risk of undermining the Chair? How will this potential conflict of interest be managed, or will it remain largely unspoken? The existing rules on secondments appear to be silent on this issue.
The same point runs the other way. With a senior civil servant at the SPA tiller, the willingness of the Scottish Government to openly hold the Authority to account for the delivery of effective policing, for instance to level criticism at, or acknowledge weaknesses may be dented.
It is also worth noting that these observations extend to other senior SPA officials. As well as Hogg, the Authority has two further Scottish Government secondments in roles within or close to the Senior Management Group. One such appointment has been in position since the Authority’s inception, despite guidance that secondments should be up to a maximum period of two years. As a not insignificant aside, we also understand that VAT is paid on Scottish Government secondments (as services supplied outwith the SPA or Police Scotland). With warnings of a £200 million funding gap by 2020-21, the use of long-term Scottish Government secondments by the Authority also raises questions of cost-effectiveness.
To reiterate, our concerns in no way reflect the abilities, experience or skills of Hogg, or other Scottish Government secondees. The issue is the independence of the SPA and the fact that the water between police and government now looks even muddier. To borrow from the Review of Governance in Policing, ‘a key raison d’être of establishing the SPA was to provide an arms-length body to hold the Chief Constable to account, whilst providing clear separation between politics and policing’. Put simply, we think that it is difficult to reconcile the ongoing presence of civil servants in senior SPA roles with this ambition.
First published by Policing Insight