Garda restructuring plans: Intent displayed augurs well for the future

Garda restructuring plans: Intent displayed augurs well for the future

Drew Harris is about to earn his corn. The garda commissioner is embarking on a reform programme that is going to put noses out of joint. There will be fewer senior jobs available in the bright, new shining organisation. Career paths will be narrowed.

There will be opposition from outside the ranks of An Garda Siochana.

Politicians and others are already loosening their pipes to cry foul at the downgrading of some stations. And along the way there will disruption and possibly attempts to use the plan as a whipping boy whenever policing or criminal controversies arise, as they inevitably do periodically in any democracy.

Mr Harris will also, in all likelihood, have to face the reality somewhere along the line that his reform programme will not be possible without the deployment of additional resources.

The basic element of the plan involves flattening out the force’s management structure which will go some way towards freeing up more gardaí for frontline work.

There will now be four regions across the State rather than six. The number of garda divisions is to be cut from 28 to 19. Each division will be run as a mini police force overseen by a chief superintendent.

He or she will have four superintendents, two for community engagement, another for policing and crime and the fourth to monitor “performance assurance” in police work.

The new model is already being roadtested in four pilot projects in Dublin, Cork, Mayo and Galway. What is as yet unclear is the concrete evidence from those projects that resources are freed up and the flattened management structure is leading to a better deployment of resources.

One way or the other, the reform plan to some extent mirrors that being currently undertaken in the health service. Last month it was announced that the HSE was to be divided up into six new regional health areas with fewer managers, more frontline staff and greater autonomy over resources and budgets.

Just as the health plan cuts down on the number of managers, so the new garda plan will see a reduction of the level of chief superintendents and superintendents in the force. Within each of the reduced number of divisions, the work will now be divided among superintendents on a functional rather than geographic basis.

That a change of structure was required is beyond question. Resources under the existing structure were not well deployed. The setting up of regional areas in 1995 was sold at the time as some form of decentralisation, but, as with other State bodies, it became plagued by duplication of resources.

Garda restructuring plans: Intent displayed augurs well for the future

Recent scandals in the force were in some ways attributable to the existing structures. The Donegal and Bailiboro scandals which led to the Morris and Disclosures Tribunals respectively illustrate this. In both cases, the districts involved were considered transient postings which, by their nature, usually attracted newly-promoted superintendents.

Donegal is a beautiful part of the world where the characteristics of the natives are highly commendable, but not the place to linger too long if one’s career is on an upward trajectory. Similarly, it emerged in the Maurice McCabe story that Bailiboro, County Cavan had a succession of district officers who stayed a short time and never relocated their homes from Dublin to the Cavan area.

In such a milieu, discipline with the ranks went south. That, in turn, inevitably led to poor service for the public - or worse.

In the new model, community engagement has received a heightened emphasis. For that to be successful it will at least require less transience from superintendents irrespective of their posting.

The other issue concerning the new model for these district officers is how will resources be divvied up. Will, for instance, the officer in charge of monitoring 'performance assurance' have as many bodies under his or her command, or will the position owe more to window dressing?

In the existing structure, with geographic districts, everybody knew to whom they were answerable. While the change is vital, the new dispensation won’t be as easy.

Overall, the reforms, if successful, will free up more guards for frontline work but just as importantly the autonomy should lead to enhanced results in every facet of the force’s work.

There is much more to be done. The Commission on the Future of Policing had 50 recommendations in total. Areas such as oversight still need to be addressed and, in particular, the greater powers and autonomy recommended for the garda ombudsman requires attention.

Down through the years, a whole slew of reports has been issued, particularly from tribunals and the garda inspectorate, which made perfect sense but lay dormant because of the hassle that would be involved in implementation.

This time around it would appear that the garda commissioner Drew Harris has moved with relative speed to get change underway. Whether or not he is successful, the intent displayed augurs well for the future.

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