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Police Scotland learning the lessons?

Recently retired Police Scotland officer Brian Cook says the persistent fascination with performance management undermines delivery of the police service
Published - 04/06/2018 By - Brian Cook

It is not easy selecting a chief constable. In this very non-political of posts a surprising amount of politics comes into play.

In the context of England and Wales you have the role of the Police and Crime Commissioners. In Scotland it’s the Scottish Police Authority whose board members, in effect, are selected by the Scottish government and ultimately answerable to the Justice Secretary.

The selection process for chief always attracts a great deal of media attention. What can be uncovered about the candidates past that will provide salacious copy? What successes make them favourite for the job? What retired chief with an axe to grind can be persuaded to settle an old score?

And you can be fairly certain that there will more subtle communications behind the scenes. Attitudes. Reputation. Pedigree.

Whoever puts their hat in the ring can expect a testing time. Exhaustive interviews and a selection centre process. Perhaps another interview for the preferred candidate with the justice secretary to ‘make sure’. And there will be increasing pressure on the SPA and the Justice Secretary to get it right.

In the Scottish devolution context, everything receives greater scrutiny. In a small country, the physical proximity of the departments of state and the public services they provide, are mirrored in the personal proximities of the people who lead and serve in them. If things are going well this is perfectly fine. But when they don’t, it is an uncomfortable and tortuous experience for all concerned. And since the inception of the new force, there has been too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

Which is why the current process to select a new Chief Constable for Police Scotland should be of particular interest to all of us who wish policing well. What lessons can we draw from the experience of the past?

For that, we could go back to the tenure of the first chief constable, Stephen House. The recent leaking of a confidential internal police Scotland document relating to a review conducted by the counter corruption unit in the first days of the new force, serve as a timely reminder of that time. Initiated by the new chief, and basically a health check of procedures and practices left over from the former eight forces, it gave him perhaps more than he bargained for.

It identified inconsistent practices in relation to the investigation of crime. Some of which fell far below the professional standards expected of a modern police service. But it also identified a phrase that caused discomfort to the new chief and which he clearly baulked at. The report highlighted a ‘culture of fear’. He had good cause to be uncomfortable, because the term was used to describe the atmosphere in the new force.

It’s old news now, but it serves to throw his tenure into sharp relief once more and is a timely reminder to those charged with the selection of his successor that, in addition to due process, a great deal of wisdom is required.

Seduction might be an odd word to introduce into the subject of a chief constable selection process, but it is apt when we look back to the appointment of Strathclyde’s Chief Constable in 2007.

Wrapped in a reputation for efficiency and rationalisation, Stephen House brought to the table promises of cost savings and improved performance. Here was a candidate that could sell the elixir of public service efficiency to a police board keen to break with a comfortable consensus. Here was a new face who could break the line of succession of the Strathclyde Police old guard and deliver real monetary savings. What was not to like?

And so it began. The immediate of rationalisation of headquarters departments, often with little science. It was strictly a numbers game. Simple stuff really. Cut department x by y = £. The truth was, some departments had become oversized. But. It didn’t matter if a particular department was overwhelmed with increasing workloads, or if its staff had a history of sickness and stress because of those factors, all were treated the same and no argument was brooked. This was a man of decisive action.

And it was popular with the operational rank and file, who saw increasing numbers of officers repatriated to division. Those that were left, were required to turn out for operational patrol on Friday evenings every month or so. For the hard pressed cop at the coal face this was great stuff. Office fat cats forced to do real police work again.

Then the chief turned his attention to them too. The shift system was perceived to be inefficient. Officers appeared to be benefiting from too many rest days. Overlapping shifts, meant to allow a proper briefing and debriefing culture, looked too soft for an empirically minded chief. HMICS were invited to review. They provided him the necessary criticism. The shift pattern was changed and the rank and file realised he wasn’t their man after all.

The senior ranks were winnowed out. Superintendents phased out at divisions and their roles taken up by chief inspectors. The title of area commander bestowed upon them to make up for the reality that they’d be doing far more for the same money.

The chief began to garner a reputation as a Gradgrind character. It may have been undeserved, but the growing perception was of a chief increasingly preoccupied with performance management and real time statistical analysis. This was no baby kissing, ribbon cutting figurehead. This was a hands on manager with an eye for detail and a desire to oversee the most basic of operational enquiries.

Stories abounded of constables being ‘invited’ to headquarters so that the chief could enquire into their handling of an incident. Area Commanders became nervously accustomed to early morning phone calls from the chief, interested in the handling of a particular incident over the weekend, or querying the status of the newly created performance management spreadsheets. RAG (Red,Amber,Green), became the area commanders singular preoccupation in life as they sought desperately to defy the odds and, in behaviours that increasingly became echoes of Minority Report, sought to predict the behaviours of criminals months in advance. Each dreaded the phone call that resulted from a slight upturn in crimes, the chief sitting many miles away with the same spreadsheet at his computer as they had on their desks.

The force analysts briefly adopted favoured status as they beavered away with the IT department to create ever more detailed real time statistics. A growing sense of big brother culture began to permeate. More stories abounded. Of a chief, clad in leather, travelling anonymously about on his motorcycle. Surprise visits and ‘what is it you do?’ became part of the mythology.

An old word with a new meaning came into play. Grip. As if there had been none before. There were now ‘grip’ meetings, where the smallest of details of crime reports were examined and dissected by senior officers whose roles had been strategic only a few months before, but who were now performing the roles of operational Sergeants. Trust. An implicit recognition of the valued roles that the various ranks performed seemed to have eddied away on a tide of oppressive scrutiny.

The rank and file came under increasing pressure to feed the new statistical machine. Crimes reports, devoid of evidence, came boomeranging back to investigating officers for further enquiry, as no one wanted to file them.

A new breed of boorish, over confident, senior officers percolated upwards on the opportunities provided by a new promotion system that rewarded those prepared to over embellish their achievements. Ex Metropolitan Police Officers began to arrive, invited by the Chief to develop themselves further in Scotland.

And so 2013 arrived. The formation of a new single national police service. The chief emerged as the successful candidate to take over the reins of the Police Service of Scotland. A decisive man of action who delivered dramatic efficiency savings and increased performance. And so, the Scottish Police Authority, newly constituted to provide governance of the new force, were as seduced as the police and fire committee before them.

The rest is recent history. Further rationalisation. Huge efficiency savings. A strategic layer of ACPOS officers too thinly stretched. The appearance of more Ex Metropolitan senior officers, lured by the promise of further promotion and generous relocation packages.

Increasing burdens were placed on lower and lower ranks. An over enthusiastic performance management culture, which led to unethical behaviours and the loss of confidence in that particularly Scottish policing tactic, the consensual stop search. The over-confident and brash decision making that led to the appearance of armed police officers on the streets of rural Scotland. The feeling that this was not a listening force. It was a force of decisive action.

And yes. Crime was at an all time low. The new force had delivered dramatic savings. Sure, the atmosphere had been soured by a very public disagreement between the Chief and the SPA, over who controlled what, but the chief won plaudits within the force for standing his ground. But. Regardless of the uneasy accommodation that was eventually reached, the feeling persisted that there was enmity between the force and the SPA. There was lack of confidence in the latter by the former. The new authority appeared distrustful and antagonistic towards the service.

And so things stumbled on for a bit. There was still much work to be done to cement the creation of the new force. Area control room rationalisation. The implementation of a new single national ICT solution to replace the disparate, inherited and antiquated IT estate. The rationalisation of the policing estate to produce ever more efficiencies.

But it was not to be. The IT project failed, foundering on the inability of the supplier to deliver. The deaths of a young couple who lay undiscovered several days after their car crashed off the M9 motorway outside Stirling threw a spotlight on the control room rationalisation and its resourcing. It provided yet more negative media comment for a force that had endured much since its inception. Pressure was heaped on the Chief. His resignation, in August 2015, brought to an end eight years as a Chief Constable in Scotland.

His successor faired no better. Phil Gormley, another chief officer with career origins in England, was appointed in 2016. He lasted two years, embroiled in allegations of bullying.

So. Here we are. On the cusp of a third chief constable. What have we learned from the past five years?

It is important that our public services deliver value for the money we spend on them. Policing is no different. But the persistent fascination with performance management undermines delivery of that service. We saw that in the 90s and we see it now. So why do we continue to be in thrall of such a culture? It creates unethical behaviours and often creates targets that unnecessarily narrow the focus of service delivery.

No one will deny we live in straightened times. Financial pressures and budgetary restraint are the realities we all face. But is it really the role of a Chief Constable to make cost savings and efficiencies their central ‘selling point’?

Should they not be fighting more tenaciously for a bigger slice of public expenditure? Whose corner should they be fighting?

Recent months have seen a subtle shift in emphasis within Police Scotland. More of a focus on the well being of Police Scotland. The Acting Chief Constable, Iain Livingstone, has done a good job of steadying the ship. There is much less emphasis on the cult of personality. He has adopted a slightly lower profile, which has helped take some focus away from the force while it rebuilds confidence. He may well be confirmed in the role in the coming weeks.

Whoever succeeds Phil Gormley will be taking on a mammoth task. Police Scotland is still a work in progress. It requires major investment in IT systems to truly transform the force into a cohesive, integrated, national police force. It is an organisation that has to be responsive to local needs whilst delivering a national service. It operates under significant financial pressures.

If anything has been learned from these past five years, it is that the health and well being of the force should be uppermost in the minds of those with the unenviable task of selecting the new Chief. Policing is an organisation that stands and falls on the calibre and commitment of its officers and staff. What is required now is a leader who can instil a culture of unity and trust. Things have improved greatly since the initiation of that counter corruption unit review. It’s vital to ensure that the fear factor does not return.

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