As part of their 2018 Local Policing review, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Northern Ireland Policing Board (NIPB) sought the views of the public to help shape the future of policing. They launched a public consultation to explore how the police could best meet public demand and deliver the most effective local policing in times of reducing budgets. Through the consultation they encouraged citizens to learn about which issues the police are dealing with, and help to prioritise them.

Crime in Northern Ireland has changed in the last ten years. Whilst reported crime has reduced, the nature of work faced by local police has shifted. Low-level crime such as criminal damage and theft has decreased, however police now deal with much more complex crimes including sexual exploitation and cyber crime.

Increasing vulnerability in society has had an impact on policing too; around 150 calls the PSNI deal with each day are linked to a person identified with mental health issues. PSNI wanted to demonstrate these changes to citizens, help them to understand the difference in policing priorities and ultimately get their feedback on how best to deal with police issues.

To gather people’s opinions on how policing should be prioritised they held local and regional public meetings in collaboration with the Policing and Community Safety Partnership. The meetings were attended by senior members of the PSNI and NIPB who also went to sessions and workshops with partner agencies; all levels of schools and universities, voluntary agencies, community groups and youth groups.

They decided to use Priority Simulator, a digital tool which gives people the chance to make trade offs between competing priorities to achieve a balanced set of options. The tool allowed people to be in charge of decisions, giving control to the public instead of simply talking at them about budget decisions.

Each meeting was centred around using tablets to complete the simulator. People were allocated 100 points to ‘spend’ across different local policing areas including ‘emergency and priority response’, ‘community policing’ and ‘criminal justice investigations’. Each section was then broken down further to allow people to get to the granular detail of how they’d prioritise police services. They also asked the public for their opinion on charging for certain services to give them the ability to earn up to 10 additional points which could then go towards other areas.

When it comes to budgets, people can be wary and unsure; PSNI found that often people would overspend by 50 points or more on their first attempt at completing the simulator and have to really deliberate on which areas to take points away from to balance it out.

The in-person meetings worked well because PSNI could sit with people and talk through their priorities, using the tool to show all the information and consequences for decisions around different issues at the point of response. People enjoyed using the tool and said it was easy to use. The exercise gave people the opportunity to raise concerns in their local communities that PSNI otherwise may not have been aware of.

The online simulator could be completed within 10 minutes and proved a better way of gathering responses than the offline paper questions; offline responses were not very detailed – for example, “investigate drugs” – and so didn’t assess how they ranked in priority with other areas. The simulator gave answers in a succinct way that could be reported back to bosses efficiently and with ease.

The Priority Simulator was covered by local and national press, getting mentions from the BBC as well as the Belfast Telegraph. Response rates were better than they were expecting with over 4,000 submissions in total, the majority of them coming through the simulator.

Feedback from the public was good; people enjoyed using the simulator and liked seeing the consequences for their decisions in real-time to see exactly how each point allocated would affect their local community. The simple layout and ability to include as much or as little detail as needed was useful and kept people engaged throughout the process.

The results from the simulator will be analysed and fed back through the policing board. They will then form part of local policing plans which dictate how police services are run in local communities and ultimately affect citizens in those areas.

We needed those answering the consultation to have an understanding of the demands PSNI face and how challenging it is to balance the resource across the various demands on local policing. The simulator was an ideal way of doing this, it was interactive and not only did we receive feedback, we received feedback which was more informed.Inspector, Police Service of Northern Ireland