Lisa Townsend: Appointing a new Chief Constable is most important

Lisa Townsend is Surrey’s Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner.

It is not unusual for a local councilor or resident to call or email and ask the police to ‘order’ or ‘direct’ them to do something. I will explain that my role as PCC is strictly non-functional. I am not a police officer, and have not undergone extensive training or acquired a warrant card. I am a politician, elected to represent the residents of Surrey and hold the Chief Constable accountable on their behalf.

There are many other statutory and non-statutory responsibilities PCCs undertake, but administration and representing our community is at the heart of our role and appointing a Chief Constable is central to this. It is a huge responsibility to lead Surrey Police, to represent our force, and to ensure our residents are safe.

I am grateful that I was in this role for 18 months before the process of finding a new Chief Constable began. It took me time to understand the force and its requirements as well as the right type of person for the fertilizer but it means I am confident that I have made the right choice. Before the official process started I spent a lot of time talking to staff, officers and Surrey residents about what they wanted from a Chief Constable. These conversations were at the forefront of my mind as I spoke with candidates.

When it comes to Chief Constables, Surrey has an impressive record. The past 25 years have seen Ian Blair, Mark Rowley, Nick Effgrave and Lynn Owens all move into senior roles at the Met. Latest chief constable to take up chairman’s role on National Police Chiefs Council – Whatever Surrey’s reputation, it’s not an area where senior officers retire quietly. I feel the pressure to pick a candidate who will be like their predecessors.

We were lucky to get four strong applicants. This may not sound like a large pool, but one of the problems felt by all PCCs is the lack of leadership candidates within policing (demonstrated in part by the recent Met Commissioner process). That Surrey South East attracted twice as many candidates as the recent recruitment force is an achievement in itself. The fact that they were all high powered was a nice problem for any PCC.

That was only half the challenge. A Chief Constable that is right for Manchester (for example) will not necessarily be right for a smaller force with different challenges. I was looking for someone who complemented my own skills and experience. Who understands that even if my role is political, it doesn’t have to be major. Someone who respects my office but will push back when necessary. We must be able to engage in robust but respectful debate when this is necessary so that the residents of Surrey understand each other’s duties.

The right Chief Constable must be the operational embodiment of the PCC’s police and crime planning. I spent over six months consulting with Surrey residents, businesses, schools and other organizations to ensure that their priorities were reflected in my plan. My role is to ensure our new chief has the resources necessary to prioritize residents and use his own operational experience to identify and appropriately prioritize areas of policing and crime that are often hidden from public view, such as online sexual abuse.

Although recruitment is a decision solely for the PCC, the right interview panel is vital and I was fortunate to have a senior member of Neighborhood Watch, a serving Chief Constable from a different force and a former senior minister on my panel. As well as an independent member to ensure transparency and proper procedures are followed. Everyone brought different experiences to the process and perspectives that I could not. Three of us on the panel who were new to hiring a Chief Constable commented on how incredibly thorough (and time consuming) the process was. I am very grateful to them for giving their time for free.

Each of the four applicants went through detailed evaluation criteria in the shortlisting, evaluating their individual skills with a rigorous scoring system. At the interview stage the three candidates faced a stakeholder group comprising senior local leaders and youth representatives chaired by the Deputy PCC, followed by an hour-long interview with the panel. They all performed well under pressure and each’s strengths and weaknesses were assessed after a real debate.

Being an elected, not appointed, person is easy to compare to the political process we use to fill roles in Westminster and beyond. Obviously, we rely too much on getting the right MPs in the first place, and then (so the theory goes) the best ones rise to ministerial positions. Perhaps we can learn from what transparency and strict policing provide for top jobs.

Whether I have appointed the right candidate or not, only time will tell, and the public of Surrey will be the final judge. What I am very confident about is that he was given an incredibly rigorous and thorough series of tasks and performed in a way that impressed every member of the appointment panel. I am sure people will see what we have done.