The Ann Barnes wagon will roll on but it has suffered a setback

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, April 12 2013

It has not been a good week for Kent's police commissioner Ann Barnes, after a spectacular public relations car crash over the appointment and then swift resignation of her 17-year-old youth tsar, Paris Brown.

There are arguments on both sides about the events but no-one can deny that the normally sure-footed commissioner has had a setback.

After a day or so basking in generally positive coverage of her appointment, her team was forced on the defensive in the face of a media maelstrom that raised questions about her judgement and the perceived failings of the recruitment process.

Worse, it had triggered two separate police inquiries and a request for a report from a cross-party group of councillors.

And on top of that, suggestions of a degree of tension between the force and the commissioner.

The entrails of this grisly saga have been well and truly poured over. One issue it has vividly illustrated is that commissioners are acting in quite different ways to police authorities.

The government argued that the concept of directly-elected police chiefs was better than a system in which anonymous, largely unknown and appointed police authorities had responsibility for strategic governance. Hard to argue with.

The trouble is that anyone elected to public office has, in the back of their minds, just what the voters will think of them when they next go to the ballot box.

And it is this that in some senses has arguably been at the root of the commissioner's difficulties this week. The idea of a youth commissioner appeared to be a good one and certainly played well - at last initially - with the media and public.

Had it worked out, you can bet safely that the initiative would have featured heavily in Ann Barnes' election publicity in 2016.

The question is: would a police authority - for all their faults - have championed the idea? Kent to my knowledge never did and neither has it been something the chief constable has ever exhorted.

But elected politicians know they are accountable to voters and are always seeking initiatives that will mark them out as distinctive.

Unfortunately, they run the risk - as in this case - of being accused of gimmicks or PR stunts in the cause of enhancing their own reputation.

Strategic governance and keeping an eye on the money is what commissioners are really about but it is not awfully sexy.

Which is why we are seeing some of these more colourful ideas being promoted. It actually adds to the public's confusion over their role - it is already evident that many misunderstand the powers of commissioners, equating them with sheriffs riding into town and clearing out the hoodlums. 

And unfortunately, when you court publicity, it can sometimes backfire.

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Categories: Politics | UKIP

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