Improving the police experience
Gordon Cairns, The Guardian
Sitting in a cafe-bar in Glasgow’s Trongate, Sarah Drummond could easily be taken for an art student who has just stepped out from one of the many galleries or studios in this part of town. In fact, the 23-year-old graduate is one half of a service design company that could revolutionise how we interact with the police and who has, in the space of nine months, become a regular on the police conference circuit, selling the idea of better social communication between the police and the public.
The aims of the social business is simple. "What we want to do is reach out to people who have had good and bad experiences with the police to let them come forward and let the police know what they think," Drummond says.
Her online invention, MyPolice, aims to do for the police what Patient Opinion – the social enterprise that pioneered public involvement in the health service, using the web – has done for the NHS, by enabling people to make practical suggestions online to improve the service they receive from the police.
The idea for the online feedback tool came to her just as she was preparing to leave art school, when her friend was burgled and was surprised by the lack of communication she received from the police force, despite the myriad methods it is now possible to communicate through. "She didn’t have a terrible time with the police – it was just disappointing," Drummond says. "That person has lost trust with the police, which could be the difference in the future between reporting a crime and just not bothering. I just thought the service she received should be redesigned."
After graduating in May last year, she entered the idea for MyPolice to the Social Innovation Camp (SIC), which brings together software developers and designers with social innovators to build web-based solutions to social problems. The judges selected it as having great potential to create social change and, following an SIC weekend that helped to develop the web-based tools, she started the company in July – initially financing it through her overdraft.
Less than a year later, West Midlands constabulary and Strathclyde police, on her home turf, are preparing to pilot the communication platform. The aim is to roll it out to police forces around the UK.
MyPolice allows anonymous feedback, to make it easier for victims – who may feel reluctant about approaching the police – to come forward, Drummond explains. It will also encourage ethnic minorities and other hard-to-reach groups to communicate their experiences of the service provided by the police, she says.
Drummond stresses: "We don’t have the restrictions, and we are not biased towards the police. We are completely independent. Our ideal would be to see a change in how the police operate."
David Cameron and Nick Clegg would appear to share Drummond’s aims, with the Conservatives pledging to introduce directly-elected commissioners and the Liberal Democrats promising direct elections to police authorities. Does Drummond think MyPolice is a better way to engage the local community to get the police service it wants than the politicians’ proposals?
"MyPolice is one part of an engagement toolkit with the public," she replies. "The point is to gain feedback. As it is online, it is only one part of this toolkit, but with 80% of the public using social media five to six hours a day, it is now a major part. I believe MyPolice is a democratic and non-agenda-setting way of engagement with the public, allowing them to voice their feelings and gain the service they want as a community. MyPolice allows the public to push for changes to service delivery where issues have been highlighted through empathetic stories the public have shared. MyPolice is putting people at the heart of public services and pushing for a more human way of doing things.
"It’s not just about [the police] using social media, but ‘getting it’. Some of the management won’t allow their officers to go on Facebook or to open a Twitter account, and so they have been surpassed by the general public."
As an example of the police not getting it, she recounts how the Metropolitan police opened a Twitter account to communicate with the climate camp protestors in London last summer, to allow demonstrators to interact with the police using their smartphones and find out about police movements and no-go areas. Drummond says: "The idea was popular and had 743 followers. However, only two from the police side were following back. The demonstrators who were looking for a conversation with the police were redirected to an email account."
A career in product design may not seem an obvious choice for someone who wants to do something for the benefit of others – "to make a dent in the world, to make things a little better". She admits that it wasn’t even clear to herself why she should have chosen design rather than, say, education, law or politics, until a recent conversation with a student. "She said that to do a degree in politics and economics was just regurgitating theory, but by going into the creative industries you are allowed to be creative about your solutions to these problems," Drummond recalls.
At a recent police conference, a speaker said that the skills of Drummond and her partner, Lauren Currie, were needed to invent a feedback tool for the force because the police had allowed a gap to be created between themselves and the online public. This does raise the question of why the police didn’t just set up their own feedback tools to improve communication with the public. Drummond explains, unequivocally: "They don’t know how to do it."
Yet, earlier this year, she had to contend with the name of her business and its modus operandi, being appropriated by the police. When Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) launched its own website – with the strapline: "My Police is a new way for you to find out how good a deal you’re getting from your local police force" – it made the social enterprise start-up a cause célèbre among the "Twitterati".
Drummond admits that the publicity raised the profile of her own venture, with MyPolice website hits spiralling from 1,000 a day to 10,000 an hour at the height of the controversy. She says: "The whole thing has been amazing for us and we have had an amazing response. It’s brought us a huge audience." But she couldn’t rest until HMIC agreed to change the name. The organisation has now said it will rename the site, although it hasn’t revealed what it is going to call it.
"Under a new name, we believe HMIC’s product will complement MyPolice and our work," Drummond says. "Indeed, there are many ways we could work together in the future, and we look forward to doing so. In bringing our vision of consumer-focused data together with HMIC’s accurate statistics, we can create something genuinely powerful and useful to citizens."
Does Drummond think the Twitter generation has an advantage over more traditional communicators, and that it can lead to social empowerment? "We can tweet someone at the top of an organisation and bypass all the different phone calls and emails you would have to make to get access," she says. "If you can organise a campaign that gets 1,000 people on the street within half an hour, it makes you feel more powerful."
Awards Social Entrepreneurs Fund First Port award 2009; Social Innovation Camp 2009; Medici prize 2009; Audi ‘Sustain our Nation’ award 2010.
Education Royal high school, Edinburgh; Glasgow School of Art, BDes; 2009-present: Glasgow School of Art, master’s in design innovation.
Career 2009-present: director, MyPolice; 2009-present: director, Snook, workshops promoting service design solutions for government agencies.
Interests Music; playing guitar; cycling; cheese; birdwatching; zombies; visiting gran, who has dementia.