A new FSS?

It was with mixed feelings I saw the recent announcement that the government was discussing the potential for a reintroduction of a Forensic Science Service. When I say mixed feelings I am being rather restrained because, in truth, its taken me over a week before I felt comfortable writing a blog that would not need to be so heavily edited as to be suitable for polite society consumption.

Anger of course was one of the main emotions among many others but all we also mixed with a feeling of inevitability, ‘of course this would have to be addressed one day’.

To understand why I have such strong feelings it is worth noting I worked for the ‘former’ Forensic Science Service (FSS) for a little over ten years, originally starting out as a laboratory technician and eventually ending up in senior management as a Work Stream Lead as part of the transformation programme; the treasury backed and funded transformation programme that was designed and in the progress of bringing the FSS back into the black, but more of that in moment.

During my time at the FSS I was privileged to work within and manage a number of teams, so I was able to experience first hand the dedication of the staff and hear from the customers just what an invaluable service was provided. Don’t get me wrong not every ‘would be’ customer or ‘stakeholder’ had love for the FSS but even the most avid detractor within the criminal justice system (CJS) understood the importance the organisation had in maintaining a healthy CJS. Many of the detractors also shared the disbelief in the decision to completely close the FSS.

The Forensic Science Service (FSS) was an executive agency which was granted trading fund status in 1999, a step designed to increase its financial flexibility. Then, following the McFarland Review in 2002, FSS Ltd was established as a GovCo, wholly owned by the government, in December 2005. The intention was that this be a transitional step towards a ‘public private partnership’.

The FSS was then granted £50 million by a previous government in 2009 to restructure the business, and a comprehensive transformation programme was initiated. However the next (Coalition) government decided to wind down the FSS completely. Their reason regularly cited are that the “FSS is currently making operating losses of around £2 million per month”, this was true at the time, however the transformation programme was on track to remedy this.

(House of CommonsScience and Technology Committee The Forensic Science  ServiceSeventh Report of Session 2010–12) (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmsctech/855/855.pdf)

At the time I was just one voice in an ocean of voices stating what a poor decision this was and inevitably some kind of subsidisation or recreation of a similar organisation would have to take place. Believe it or not when I looked at the market place and the state of the CJS it lead me to predicting that it would be around 5 years when this would need addressing, I wasn’t too far off!

I will not attempt to comment on the political reasons behind the closure and nor can I support the commercial justification, not whilst a transformation programme was set to resolve that situation. Putting these aside there is an even bigger reason as to why this decision was poor.

A criminal justice system can not be supported by commercial entities alone. There is most definitely a place within the Forensic Science Market for commercial entities and market competition can lead to better value for money and innovation. However the CJS can never fully conform to commercial market models, justice can not be commercially led.

There are a number of forensic techniques that are rarely used but can become vital to pursuing justice but because of their relative scarce use a commercial company would (quite rightly) never invest in the innovation to improve and reduce costs; there would never be a return on that investment. However as stated these techniques can prove key to justice being served.

Whilst every commercial forensic provider must work with the utmost integrity and I believe they do (I of course work for one) there will always be a balance to be struck when the instructing authority is also the paying customer. Where is the fall back position when the balance can not be found?

There is also some conflict in the ‘competition drives innovation model’. There is less and less money in the coffers of the paying customers, Police, CPS, state aid etc and therefore less money within the Forensic market place. Add to this the fact innovation is inherently risky, research by its very nature does not always lead to commercially viable solutions and when there’s less and less money available, why would a commercial company invest in innovation?

To ensure all techniques particularly those that are not commercially viable remain available to the CJS, to ensure you have a fall back position in the event of conflict of interest, to ensure research and innovation takes place regardless of commercial viability; what do you need?

A government department, a public body?

How do you ensure the normal civil service or public body costly overheads don’t cripple it but yet remain totally accountable?

Could the answer be a Government Owned Company (GoCo) or a public private partnership?

What is evident is a purely commercial and private forensic market place is not working and it is right the government is now looking at options. What is also evident is the FSS transformation programme should have been see through to end rather than waiting years to arrive at the same point.

I for one am interested to see what the current consultation will deliver. However my interest will aways be mixed with frustration I imagine just where our CJS and forensic landscape would be already if that poor decision had not been made in the first place.

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