In any industry which is built upon deep expertise and tried-and-tested methods, changes in approach can be a contentious issue. It can be particularly problematic when it seems like that change is based on external constraints.
On the other hand, conservatism can be equally problematic when faced with a changing field of play. And while no-one likes to be told to do more with less, in the right circumstances such thinking can foster a culture of greater efficiency. Introducing new, modern methods can be key in remaining alive to evolving challenges, and simply getting more bang for your buck.
This is the debate around the shift toward an intelligence-led model by trading standards framed in the broadest possible terms. The fear is that utilising such an approach, as opposed to traditional market surveillance, would see trading standards moving from a proactive to a reactive approach.
These are the very words in which the 2015 report The Impact of Local Authority Trading Standards in Challenging Times, produced by the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Local Government Studies for the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Chartered Trading Standards Institute, couches the issue.
The fear within the sector as outlined in the report centres on the forcing of change by cuts. With constrained resources, officers feel forced into working based on consumer complaints and other intelligence reports, rather than being out in the field, carrying out systematic and planned inspections and checks. Efficiency in this context has a sinister edge, serving as little more than a euphemism for funding cuts.
A more proactive approach
Is this what an intelligence-led approach signifies, then? Not really, says Jacqueline Jeffrey, who worked as an intelligence analyst for Trading Standards Scotland between September 2014 to May 2017, helping them to effect the transition to an intelligence-led model. For her, this was about moving away from reactivity.
“What we tried to do is encourage a more proactive approach… trying to identify things that were going to become an issue and taking a preventative approach, tackling them before they become much bigger and require a much bigger response. Just tackling rogue traders is not an effective use of resource. If you can understand the modus operandi and the loopholes, you can potentially influence regulatory change, which longer term is a more efficient and effective way to tackle the issue”.
Horizon scanning plays a significant role in achieving this – reading the news and looking to consumer groups in order to understand what’s going on in other authorities or other counties and setting intelligence requirements to pre-empt emerging issues.
In her role, Jeffrey was responsible for helping to introduce the ‘National Intelligence Model’ (NIM). She says the main resistance she encountered in trying to do so was the fear that it was an attempt to turn trading standards into an offshoot of the police, where the model had previously been championed. Indeed, Jeffrey’s own background was with Police Scotland and the Strathclyde Police, at which she served as an analyst manager.
It is not the case, however, that the NIM is a law enforcement model. “The National Intelligence Model is a business model that actually allows you to better understand the issues that you’re facing and make informed decisions around them. From a tactical perspective, it informs enforcement activity, and from a strategic viewpoint it allows you to look at issues more holistically, to understand what was going on in the wider environment, how that could impact you as a service, what you must do thereafter to stay in line with that.”
The central ethos is the successful management of resources to best achieve trading standards’ key objectives: the prevention, management, and control of consumer detriment and exploitation. Part of the reason why this shift is necessary is the changing of the theatre of operations in which trading standards functions. “There has been a proliferation of online sales in recent years, coupled with a decline in high-street retailers,” says Jeffrey. “This has essentially changed the role of trading standards. Officers are expected to tackle digital platforms that have misleading information, are scamming consumers, or selling illicit goods. In this case, there is not necessarily a physical premises for officers to inspect, which can make the process that bit more problematic.”
This has created a skills gap, she observes, something Trading Standards Scotland addressed with an e-crime training package.
The right kind of efficiency
This brings us back to efficiency – both the elephant in the room and the operational virtue to which all good organisations – especially those contingent on the public purse – are obligated to strive. There’s no escaping the fact that the purse strings have been tightened, thus creating extra impetus to strive for efficiency. At the same time, to aspire to get the best possible results with whatever level of resource you command is surely not too outlandish a thing to ask of any well-run operation.
Clare Forbes is a trading standards and regulatory consultant, who worked for 12 years for West Yorkshire Trading Standards, and currently consults with Ashfords LLP as well as the National Trading Standards Scams Team and North Yorkshire County Council. She also helped bring in an intelligence-led approach, and questions the orthodoxy of the traditional market surveillance model that sees businesses inspected based on type, regardless of whether or not they had proven themselves to be consistently compliant in the past.
“Some inspections were unnecessary; the businesses weren’t profiting. Certainly [NIM] is a way to eliminate these visits, and the unnecessary burdens on businesses. It allows trading standards to use limited resources to target things that are really important.”
Speaking the same language
One key way in which an intelligence-led approach affords greater efficiency – in the positive sense of that word – is creating a culture of collaboration, both within different regional authorities and with external organisations.
“Really, it’s a shift to be in line with other enforcement agencies, like the police,” says Forbes. “From our point of view, we were finding other agencies weren’t engaging with us unless we were talking in terms of intelligence reports.” This, she adds, put an onus on officers to ensure they were recording intelligence.
Jeffrey echoes this: “Intelligence allows for you to understand an issue, and provides a mechanism for allowing information to be shared between organisations in support of common goals. It is only by understanding issues that you are able to identify opportunities for working in partnership.”
She gives the example of Scottish Crime Campus – a Scottish Government initiative to enhance collaboration between various anti-crime agencies. These include Police Scotland, HMRC, the National Crime Agency, and other enforcement/regulatory agencies including Trading Standards Scotland. This helped to raise the profile of trading standards as an interventions partner, working alongside other agencies using consumer protection regulations to help tackle the threat posed from serious organised crime. This partnership working allowed for economies of scale, where there were cross-cutting issues such as illicit trade or doorstop crime.
Inter-agency cooperation allowed, for instance, the addressing of the issue of doorstep fish sales, through a Trading Standards Scotland-led initiative, supported by Police Scotland and local trading standards teams. The issue was found to be seasonal, taking place chiefly over autumn and winter months. With this intelligence in hand, Trading Standards Scotland were able to create a problem profile and guidance on legislative options. Taking a preventative and proactive approach that involved the local press, instances fell over 60% the following year, and arrests were effected around the Scottish borders.
Fostering a data culture
In order for an intelligence-led approach to be successfully implemented, it’s essential that a data-sharing culture is cultivated. Tom Symons is Acting Head of Government Innovation at innovation foundation Nesta, and works around data and local government.
There are three things he believes are necessary to foster such a culture: senior level buy-in, information governance expertise, and a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve with the data.
The senior level buy-in can help people to see that the risks of not sharing information can be equal to the perceived risks of sharing it, he explains. The information governance expertise, on the other hand, provides an understanding of the information-sharing gateways which can be afforded by legislation (a shift from 5x5x5 to 3x5x2- see box-outs – in information evaluation has also eased the process of sharing). The significance of the clear purpose is hopefully, well… clear.
Getting this culture in place can help to tackle one of the major charges levelled against the intelligence-led approach: relying on patchy reported data. There is richness to be found in the data to which local authorities have recourse, says Symons – particularly if this collaborative data-sharing approach is taken.
Jeffrey is alive to this issue too. Where gaps in intelligence are brought to light in the wake of horizon scanning, she explains, it can be seen to that the requisite intelligence is built in a targeted manner. The key here is ensuring that thorough horizon scanning takes place in order to address these gaps before the problematic behaviour arises.
The baby and the bathwater
Ultimately, adopting a more intelligence-led approach does not mean we have to completely abandon market surveillance. One needn’t completely preclude the other. “It’s important to stress this wouldn’t be a way to get rid of trading standards officers or trying to undermine their expertise,” says Symons. “Once you’ve been doing that job for some time, you have a second nature understanding of issues – you just might be able to enable them to achieve even better results with an intelligence-led approach.”
Indeed, Jeffrey stresses that intelligence is information that has been assessed – the latter stage calling for an expert human presence in the process.
For her too, market surveillance and the intelligence-led approach are essentially two sides of the same coin. “Market surveillance and intelligence are not necessarily two disparate things. Instead, embedding horizon scanning processes will enable you to identify emerging issues, allowing for a proactive, potentially preventative approach to be taken in order to stop something from becoming a much bigger issue. If you think back to the horse meat scandal – all the warning signs were there.”
While the reality of cost-cutting has coloured the debate, surely no one would argue that adding increasingly advanced prevention tools to trading standards’ arsenal is a bad thing.
EXPLAINED: The 5x5x5 model
The 5x5x5 model is part of the National Intelligence Model as used by the police to assess the value and sharing of a piece of information.
The first two fives refer to scores on a scale given to the source of the information, without assessing the information itself (free of bias or personal feelings) and the data itself, looking at the circumstances in which it was collected.
As a rule, only data scored B2 – at least the second-highest score for each of these – is considered worthwhile. The final five refers to the handling code that governs to whom the information can be disseminated, based on a risk assessment. In this model, these tend towards limiting the people with whom information can be shared.
EXPLAINED: The 3x5x2 model
The 3x5x2 model streamlines the process, by reducing the source assessment to reliable, unreliable or untested (removing mostly and sometimes options), simplifies the wording in the information assessment, and, perhaps most importantly, changing the handling codes to make them more conducive to the sharing of information so long as it remains within the confines of the law.