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23 July 2014
Reassuring allies

Reassuring allies

Hardly had the plane touched down on the tarmac, than Darren Burgess was thrown into his new role. In fact, only a week or so had passed between returning to Scottish soil after four years in Washington DC and becoming Head of Strategic Engagement for Police Scotland. As a Scottish Affairs Attaché based in the British Embassy in the US capital, Burgess was one of two diplomats charged with promoting Scotland’s interests in its largest overseas market.

“It was a great challenge to operate in the capital of the only existing world superpower and to be part of the whole lobbying think-tank environment which is absolutely unique to Washington DC. I learned the importance of networks out there and how to use those to achieve what you’re employed to achieve,” he says.

Burgess’s networking skills – both in DC and as Scotland’s representative on the European Civil Judicial Network between 2007 and 2010 – will stand him in good stead in his new job.  It’s perhaps fair to suggest the creation of his post this April is an acknowledgement that Police Scotland’s profile requires some attention after a bumpy ride in its first year.

Burgess sits down with Public Service Quarterly on one of their better days. Assistant Chief Constable Wayne Mawson, appearing before the justice sub-committee on policing, had just announced that consensual stop searches on children under the age of 12 would cease; this news was greeted enthusiastically by MSPs, in particular by Lib Dem justice spokesperson Alison McInnes, whose party already claimed credit in the ten minutes it had taken to swap Committee Room 6 for the parliamentary café.

“Individually, Strathclyde, Lothian and Borders, Grampian, [they] all had a profile which would come to the fore, periodically,” says Burgess. “But with a single organisation, that brings much more media interest [and] political interest, as we’ve just seen just now in the justice sub-committee.

“I was appointed after a selection process, to head up engagement with government, with elected officials both at the  national parliamentary level and also, to a slightly lesser extent, with locally elected representatives, councillors as well, through COSLA, really to strengthen relationships with them to demonstrate that at the earliest possible juncture on big policy changes, and as we try and develop this new organisation, that we can do so collaboratively and in a joined-up way to try and mitigate tensions, to mitigate controversies over big issues. Obviously, that was naturally evident in the first year of Police Scotland and it will continue. But my role is to strengthen those relationships.”

On the ground, contact is considered strong. Each of the 14 divisional commanders goes before local scrutiny boards while area chief inspectors do so at council ward level. Burgess’ responsibility lies more in matters that emerge at a national level, though his role does require close working with divisional commanders given the speed with which the likes of stop and search and armed officers have developed a Scotland-wide dimension.

Though Burgess admits such issues have attracted “mixed coverage” nationally, the strength of local community relations and the accessibility that local commanders offer are aspects he is keen to underline. “[In terms of] other issues, I guess it’s appreciating that in 2014, where we are, 16 or 17 months after Police Scotland has come into effect, the fact that scrutiny arrangements are robust and necessarily so – that’s the way things should be – but just operating in an environment, I guess, where perhaps more so than under the eight legacy forces policing issues can move from scrutiny into what would be perceived [as] encroachment, perhaps, into the operational autonomy of the Chief Constable.

“That’s an area that I think is here to stay, but that’s one of the key roles that I have in terms of managing those relationships and ensuring that the information flows are there and that MSPs and committee clerks feel that if there are issues, rather than escalate them, they can pick up the phone and can get that early information, that early interaction, that perhaps gives them the answers rather than they sort of blow out of proportion.”

It’s been no secret that moments of tension have arisen in the last 12 months between senior police and politicians. I begin to ask whether relationships will become “more…”, leaving the search for the adjective dangling, half-finished. “More moderate,” he interjects. “Mature,” says the press officer, which they settle on. 

“I hope so,” adds Burgess. “That’s got to be the aspiration and I would genuinely hope that that could eventually be a by-product. But ultimately, if we take policing and we take the fact that both the Conservatives and the Labour Party both backed the creation of a single force, there are no votes in that. The reality [is] that they need to find other areas where they can set clear blue water between their parties and the party of the government, so that’s always going to lead to criticism and rub points.”

It is only week ten for Burgess but already, a joint event with the Scottish Police Authority has been held inside the Scottish Parliament for all MSPs, while he’s made his way around all bar one of the opposition spokespeople on justice.

His message, then, to people working in the public sector? “Our top-line objective is about keeping people safe and we want to do that by delivering accountable local responsive policing. At Police Scotland, we will work with absolutely anybody to achieve that overarching objective.”  

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