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Interview: a change of image

The College of Policing is about to rebrand itself but will that be enough to silence its critics? Outgoing Chief Executive Mike Cunningham tells Police Oracle he is confident that the changes are a big step forward.
Published - 11/08/2020 By - Chris Smith

Rebranding is always tricky for any organisation because getting it wrong is both costly and embarrassing.

The dilemma for the College of Policing is in deciding what core work in the service remains the same and what has changed.

The digital world has developed learning tools such as interactive video and more. The new generation of officers who have grown up using games consoles and virtual community programmes like Minecraft will have been shocked by the current provision of learning and development.

Added to the challenge is that the College has been under pressure to prove it is relevant to both officers and senior politicians for the modern challenges of policing. All this has had to be resolved on a tight budget while tackling mission-critical issues such as developing guidance for officers as part of the response to COVID-19.

Chief Executive of the College Mike Cunningham is retiring after more than two years in charge and 33 years in policing.

For him, the two changes were that the College had to be relevant and open to all ranks and focused on the future issues officers will face during their careers by becoming better connected to them.

He tells Police Oracle that COVID-19 accelerated the unstoppable move to online learning that the service has been “slow to embrace” before now.

“I would be the first to say it’s the thing that we had to improve,” he says.

The rebrand will also tackle wider criticism of the service from HM Inspectorate that best practice isn’t widely shared, collaboration between forces on back office projects is poor, progress on diversity is slow and the senior ranks are held by a decreasing pool of people.

His first move has been to offer free membership to end the narrative among officers that the College is a two-tier provider for promotion hunters first and refresher courses accessed when needed.

Mr Cunningham says all this was obvious from the day he started: “It was very clear to me that the college had a job to do to enhance the connection with the police. There was a dislocation between many people and the College.

“For many good people in policing, the College had failed to make its case. It still seems to me that the communication with policing – especially to those on the frontline – needs work. It’s absolutely fundamental.”

His assessment is that the College responded well to the COVID-19 crisis – both in delivering the guidance on enforcement and in switching to online training and assessment in a matter of weeks.

As a result, the College is “capable of meeting future challenges”.

The College has been left behind by a raft of issues including mental health and welfare as well as diversity – an issue where he says “there is more to do”.

Officers are now going to be supported on how to deal with life in the digital world with issues such as digital evidence gathering. Regional events will also be expanded so trainers are more visible.

A big complaint, both from officers and HMI has been the lack of work to share best practice.

He says: “I know from my years in policing that sharing best practice is not something British police are good at.”

That is going to change through regular updates – the first of which is Going Equipped. This is on the back of the IOPC and Police and Crime Commissioners now working to a system of continuous development and reflective learning.

And dealing with online scrutiny is also an area that officers want addressed. A fast-developing issue this summer is the significant number of officers now under investigation from the Independent Office for Police Conduct as a result of posts on social media.

Mr Cunningham says core training matters as much as technology because sites like Twitter are “a reality that’s been with us for some years and is far more relevant”.

“Body worn video is a huge benefit. I would encourage officers to use that in the way they are doing. I would hope and expect officers will behave in a way that is in line with their training and public expectation,” he says.

After years of handing down decisions, the online overhaul will also enable officers to respond to developments.

Mr Cunningham says: “What will happen in the future will be training by user requirement. We will open up the opportunity for people to give feedback. We’ll see what people like – and won’t like.”

But this is evolution not revolution has the motivations of offices won’t change.

He says: “There are parts of what we do that haven’t changed. People will join policing to protect people, keep them safe and to catch bad people. These things will always be there – and so they should.”

If he is clear about the future of policing, what about the future of the College itself?

Mr Cunningham predicts officers will soon be using augmented reality with smart phones and virtual reality simulators.

But he says: “I would love to be able to offer a whole lot more but we haven’t got the resources.”

While the focus for the government has been on the 20,000 Uplift recruits, another critical issue is the retention of serving officers, many of who have been ground down by the austerity era.

Mr Cunningham says there are signs of change but the College will do more for them.

“The job market is about to change significantly. What we’re seeing is people are staying in policing who were choosing not to,” he says.

“It’s the old adage that you develop people sufficiently so they could move on but treat them sufficiently well that they don’t. That’s going to be an important part of our business in the future.”

What’s his advice to the new generation of officers coming through who will have the degrees that he has championed?

“Commit to the oath that they swear because that will be a very important grounding for them, to remember why they joined and remember that they are there to serve the public,” he says. “And not to be frightened of making mistakes. And hopefully enjoy it.”

To achieve all this, he says the College must give the right people the right skills, set the right framework, enable the right diversity and get the right leadership.

He says: “The College is ultimately here to help policing.”

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