Covert surveillance creates challenge

The news that 1,000 covert surveillance operations are being launched each month by local government and other agencies presents a new challenge for public service communicators.

Some of the authority to use covert techniques comes from the Regulation of Investigatory Powers legislation, aimed at combating terrorism. The use by local councils of these laws is part of the drive to deliver what the public wants - less crime. Technologies that have been used include digital cameras to identify fly-tippers, traditional surveillance techniques to spy on dog walkers suspected of fouling, and email and telephone records to tackle benefit fraud.

The use of the powers primarily intended for national security needs to be justified and explained. Poole Council in Dorset is now in the spotlight after it was revealed that it conducted a three-week surveillance operation on a family to ensure that they lived within the right catchment area for a school. The public would want to ensure that people don't lie on school applications, but seems to have less appetite for rigorous council action, if it is perceived as being disproportionate.

Public relations is about building a beneficial relationship with the public. Meeting the need to detect illegal action, while avoiding perceptions of a 'surveillance state', is a difficult balancing act.

Building public trust in enforcement means doing four things well. First, authorities need to explain the context of their enforcement actions. Councils that put the drive to create safe communities at the heart of their communications need to explain that this means they will use every legal tool to uphold the law. 

Second, they must engage the public in this drive. Encouraging citizens to help the police and council brings the community into the fight against crime; local eyes and ears, rather than digital records. 

Third, they should demonstrate accountability by allowing public scrutiny of enforcement actions. 

Fourth, they should celebrate success. The national plaudits for Harrow's 'lie detector' test to identify benefit cheats shows how this can be achieved.

The challenge of harnessing new powers and technology for the public good will not diminish. The use of CCTV to combat littering is the next proposed step. The greater the technology at our disposal, the greater the need to show that it is used properly for the public good.

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