Opinion Articles

What’s a ‘back office’ for? The case of policing

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British police forces are regarded as among the best in the world. The (mainly) unarmed British 'Bobby', policing by consent, is still an attractive ideal - as shown by the demand for British officers in other countries. In current discussions of public spending cuts, the government insists that this 'frontline' service will be protected, if necessary at the expense of the 'back office'. The police service provides a useful case study to evaluate what the back office is for and how it has helped to drive improved public services in the UK.

Before the development of modern-style uniformed police forces 200 years ago, law enforcement was cheap and accountable, but it was not joined-up. Detectives like Joseph Nadin in Manchester or John Townsend in London were potent thief-takers, but they kept their knowledge (and the rewards it brought them) to themselves. This atomisation was cited as the chief reason why policing had to be institutionalised, and institutionalisation requires bureaucracy. When in 1839 a thief escaped in Sheffield because one branch of law enforcement had not told the other what it was doing, this 'want of good enforcement' was solved by keeping a book. Policing needs paperwork.

To start with, new police forces were pretty lean. In 1865, for every civilian clerk in the Met there were 441 officers (quite a few of whom were administrators). But then things began to change. The early Metropolitan police had a massive staff turnover. The only way to attract and keep experienced officers was to offer a pension and someone had to administer it. Local and central government realised that police forces were the best enforcers of all sorts of dull regulation. To take one example, the Met began to regulate London's taxi industry, employing more clerks and police solely to do that. By 1895 every clerk supported 121 officers. National security and all its attendant regulations led to the ratio shifting still further: in 1920, the ratio was 1:57, in 1940, 1:34. By 1985, for every £5 spent by the Met on officers' pay, £1 was spent on civilian staff, and this trend continued. Officers (and their pensions) are expensive; civilians are cheap.

Identity is perhaps the most important category of information that police need to process. In the late nineteenth century this was a hit and miss process, as experienced prison guards stared at long lines of suspects, trying to recognise any who had adopted a false identity. Photographs helped, and in the 1890s the Chief Constable of Wolverhampton wrote that the most important skill for a detective was the ability to make copies of a mugshot. Fingerprints changed all this, but fingerprints require an immense back office, to collect, store and consult them.

By the 1960s, the opportunity to store the fingerprint and criminal names indexes on computers was too tempting to resist. Police officers - now working with radios and control rooms (both expensive pieces of kit) - could now check the identity of vehicles and individuals in a matter of minutes. But specifying, buying and running the National Computer, and maintaining the communications network were all expensive. The back office has costs. Filling in forms might be the bane of police officers' lives, but it's a necessary part of it. Cut the back office too far, and we're back to the early nineteenth century, when policing was as good as the individual police officer, but could never be any better.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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