Do you need a copper to inspect the cops?

Until now, the person charged with inspecting the police in England and Wales has always been an ex-copper.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) is supposed to be independent of government and the police - its boss technically an appointment of the Crown. But the reality has always been that the home secretary chooses the Chief Inspector of Constabulary and that individual is drawn from the senior ranks of the police service.

Until now.

Today the Home Office announced that its preferred choice for the job is Tom Winsor, the "civilian" lawyer whose recent proposals for reforming police pay and conditions have gone down as well with ordinary coppers as a vomiting drunk in the custody suite.

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Image caption Tom Winsor has carried out a review of police pay and conditions

The committee representing police inspectors in England and Wales has said the decision "simply beggars belief". Matt Cavanagh from the left-leaning think-tank IPPR, said it was a "risky if not reckless choice", a "provocative" appointment which could damage the reputation of the inspectorate.

The central argument seems to be that only someone with years of experience of policing can do the job. Paul McKeever from the Police Federation has said: "If ever there was a need for sagacious advice from someone with a profound understanding of policing, it is now."

The subtext here is that officers would dearly like the head of the HMIC to be someone who would defend the police service against the impact of some of the government's reform proposals. What they appear to have got as the new chief inspector is the very man who came up with the reforms in the first place.

The fact that Theresa May has named such a controversial outsider sends a powerful message to the service that the government is committed to significant reform and, after being heckled and booed at the Police Federation conference last month, is content to take on the rank and file.

But is there some truth in the charge that only an insider can have the "deep and profound understanding of policing" required for the job? Or might Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone be right in suggesting: "The fact that he is not from a police background is innovative and it may be brilliant."?

Arguments for and against external appointments to public positions were presented to the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee a couple of years ago. The subsequent report, "Outsiders and Insiders", concluded that the senior civil service "should take appropriate measures to reduce its reliance on external recruitment, not least because outside appointees do not appear to perform better than career civil servants - despite being paid more".

They heard from the then Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell who argued that bringing in new skills and thinking was enormously valuable. "Getting people from a wide range of backgrounds, the private sector and wider public sector… is really good for us," he argued. "We should not sit back and say that we should have only talent that we grow internally."

However, the committee also heard from the Ofsted chair Zenna Atkins, who said outside recruits found it very difficult not to do one of two things: "One is to go native and just go along with what the public sector has done and to buy into, 'that's the way it's done here'… or the other thing is you are continually banging your head against the wall and are not able to navigate your way through the way things are done."

The report produced a table which was said to provide "some slight support for the belief that external appointees on the whole perform less well than internal recruits".

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However, if the aim is to challenge the norms and procedures of an organisation, to stir things up a bit, then experience from business suggests an outside appointment can have transformative effects.

When Adam Crozier was appointed chief executive of the Football Association in 2000, there were plenty of raised eyebrows. He was the opposite of what was expected for the governing body of England's national game - young (35), Scottish and with no experience of business in football.

In his short tenure, Crozier is credited with turning the FA into a much younger and more commercial organisation. He made enemies and his approach had its critics, but others argue that only someone completely outside the old Lancaster Gate cabal could have pushed through such needed change.

Last month, the debt-laden tour operator Thomas Cook appointed an industry outsider as its new chief executive. Harriet Green's background is in electronic components distribution. Again, the aim seems to be to shake things up. The board said she had been hired because of her "extensive experience of driving business transformation and change programmes".

The question of who should be the next director general of the BBC also sees a split between those who want an experienced internal "steady-as-she-goes" candidate and those demanding more radical change pushed through by someone from outside the corporation.

So the appointment of Tom Winsor as Chief Inspector of Constabulary, should it happen, signals something more profound than ministers putting two fingers up to belligerent bobbies. It is strong evidence that this government wants transformative cultural change in the police service. Expect fireworks.