POLITICIANS love talking about the front line.

In hospitals it conjures up images of doctors in white coats and stethoscopes, in schools it is teachers using the whiteboard. These, the logic goes, are the good kind of public-sector workers, to be protected and cherished. But pen-pushers at the local council education department? Or NHS bean-counters? Not so much.

The trouble is, most politicians wouldn't know the front line if they tripped over it. Not because so many of our MSPs and councillors have never done a real job in their lives, although it can't help if they haven't. No, the reason policymakers can't tell their "back office" from their elbows is that, horribly and genuinely, nobody can agree where the front line is anymore.

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Take policing. The Scottish Police Authority, the watchdog for the new national force, is looking at proposals to close half of Scotland's 999 control rooms. Critics of the plan reckon staff taking calls and dispatching officers are as front line as colleagues on the streets. Supporters think rationalising what they quietly regard as a backroom operation protects something that they also call the front line: bobbies on the beat.

Where does the front line lie in policing? Is it the uniformed cops who come to your door when you call 999 to report a break-in? Is it the person, perhaps a civilian, who answers the phone when you dial the same number? Or the civilian who dusts down your window sills for finger prints?

Back in the 1970s this was easy to answer. Those on the front line had warrant cards. Those who weren't were civilians, usually low-paid in administration. That has changed, dramatically. In the 1980s and 1990s the Scottish police service was civilianised. There wasn't too much debate. Civvies were drafted in to a whole range of positions once occupied by officers, such as crime analysis. By the creation of Police Scotland there was roughly one civvy for every three officers and old notions of the front line were wiped away.

The new force is looking for huge savings. And the brunt of the pain for this is falling on civilian staff. Why? Because the SNP's commitment to keeping the extra 1000 officers it achieved in its first term of office is absolute. Unions representing staff think the ratio of civilians to officers could fall to 1:3. Bad news? For workers, yes. But what about the decision aboutwho is best placed to do what job: police officer or civilian?

Take the control rooms that are under threat. Some senior police officers privately think there should be a bigger role for officers: real police, they argue, could play a crucial role in handling calls, for instance from somebody who has witnessed a serious crime. But there are very different views on this. In fact, practice was very different in the eight legacy forces. In closure-threatened Dumfries there were 17 staff to 13 officers. In Dundee there were 82 staff and 10 officers. The new national force reckons on a ratio of 45:55.

Clever people disagree on which jobs should be for staff and which for officers. So should we not be openly debating how civilianised we want the policing to be before we let more staff go?