The process of improving process…

“A perfection of means, and a confusion of aims seems to be our main problem.” Einstein

Process has been a special beau of the Police since I joined over 10 years ago. It has been conjoined in matrimony with the ever-present spectre of New Public Management since I can remember. What is New Public Management (NPM) I hear you ask? Well it may be better to have a look here for the scholarly run down: or here if you are a Wikipedia lover: The basic features involve separating departments/functions into silos and introducing competition, measurement, and performance to improve ‘efficiency.’

Sounds familiar? It should. You will have seen NPM in the benefits sector, healthcare, policing, education… the list goes on. Do you ever wonder why departments don’t speak to each other within the public services? It is because they haven’t been designed to… Luckily, things are on-the-up in this area and there are signs of improvement.

So, it would stand to reason wouldn’t it, that a lot of the processes that we have are based on small areas of public service, measuring small areas of public service. These processes are often insular; they are focused inwards and work to improve micro areas within the department or to further the purpose of only that department.

That was a mouthful wasn’t it? Let me put into some context…

A particular area of the service becomes a priority. This can happen because of public pressure, a review, a change process, or because someone wants it to become one. So if home burglaries became a priority, what would NPM do about it?

Well, the first thing that would usually happen is a target would be introduced. This target would be put in place to bring about ‘efficiency,’ drive activity, and allow staff to aspire towards achievement in the workplace, or that is how it would be sold. The next thing would be introduction of tight processes, with a catalogue of checks and balances. This will mean rigorous monitoring of data, and lots of compliance.

Skip a step in the process and you will likely be spoken to at the very least, make a mistake by missing a step and usually – over time – there would be issues around discipline. This means that error/anomaly/difference will be ironed out and staff will maintain ‘high’ levels of investigatory standards at all times. Managers think that they are doing the right thing by observing their silos, gateway checks, and process, and believe that efficiency comes as a result of it.

Except it doesn’t work like that. Why? Because burglars do not just burgle houses. Burglaries are all different. Cops are not robots. And somewhere amidst all this, is the victim.

Following steps 1-10 will not produce a high quality of investigation. A well trained Police Officer with good training and empathy will provide a high quality of investigation. Will all those steps be appropriate for every investigation? Obviously not. But will cops have to do them anyway to maintain ‘quality?’ Absolutely. What does this produce? Well it produces waste, and lots of it.

It produces waste for the victim, waste for the cop, and lots of waste for the organisation.

From a narrative perspective, what story does it tell the people involved in the process?

  • Cop: You are not capable of conducting a high quality investigation yourself, we have to tell you how to do it, and if you screw up we will be having words. Followers of the process know their job is done when the steps are complete. Numbers and ticks are VERY important, but my individual skill/opinion is not.
  • Organisation: We highly value the correct administration and compliance of our investigations because we believe that if you follow this process, it will assist us to hit our targets. Targets are good because hitting them means we are providing a better service for our victims. There is an emphasis on conformance, and there is a belief that this brings performance.
  • Victims: The police officer that attended seemed to know what they are doing, they had certain steps to go through but they didn’t listen when I told them about how I was feeling. I’m having issues with neighbours across the road and I needed time and reassurance. They said they would ring me in a week, and then again in a month, I wanted them to ring me tomorrow…
  • Supervision: Your Police Officers are good if they can follow process and administrate properly. They are great with their victims as I know they contact them when the process tells them to. The charts say performance is improving so my staff must be doing a good job.

Although simplified, there are so many problems discussed in these last four points that I can’t do justice to them all. Putting people in process related boxes does nothing for bespoke policing and it dumbs down the officer’s creativity and autonomy. It manages people through numbers and tick boxes, and as we all know, people are not – and never have been – numbers or tick boxes.

Now this discussion is missing one very large point. The processes and targets were brought in because overall, the efficiency of the police and other public services was very poor. They were seen as expensive dinosaurs in desperate need of an overhaul. NPM did just that, and process and practices were brought in that did make the profession tighter, more focussed, and it certainly got people working harder.

Now however, is the time to work smarter. The austerity is biting, and resources are becoming scarce. The steps in those processes that represent waste must be cut out from the bottom up and the top down. The only important question here is which steps are waste, and which steps have lots of value?

How do we answer that question? You guessed it; research. Which of those steps that we do daily generate waste, and which locate offenders? Let’s stop focussing on those reactive steps that follow a burglary, and instead look at the ones that follow a successful detection. Where did that detection come from? What methods are we using that are catching and convicting offenders? Can we improve and focus these steps?

Examples would be:

  • Do a large number of detections happen following House to House enquiries?
  • Do a large number of detections happen through CCTV enquiries?
  • Are fingerprints bringing about successful convictions? Where were they found and who lifted them?
  • Is entry and exit route research a contributing factor to conviction?
  • And the real big questions, is convicting a burglar really the way forward? Are there better ways of dealing with them? What is a success for the victim, and is it different to what the cops would say was a success?

I could hazard guesses at the answers to these questions, but I don’t want to do that as that is how many of the processes were brought into being in the first place. Evaluation of work flow, processes, and ‘successful’ outcomes should happen regularly as a matter of course. This means a solid partnership and connection with academia. Society is changing all the time, and as a result, continual improvement should not be a department that drops in and out of particular areas in the service, it needs to be a pillar of a public service’s operations.

Once the data has been collected, evaluated and conclusions have been drawn, this needs to be merged and connected with professional opinion. It would be nice if it was discussed with victims and offenders too. Being transparent is something that public services often do badly, why not open the whole process from the start? Invite opinion, discuss progress with the workforce and the public through social media? There could be a far greater understanding at the end when conclusions are drawn. Down the line, this could result in Policing being something that police do with the public, instead of doing it to them…

So, there you have it, a whistle stop tour through NPM in public services. In a nutshell, let’s look for some meaning in our process. If it isn’t there, don’t do it. Let’s find the meaning with good research and evidence our decisions when we make them with good professional judgement. Lastly, let’s talk about it.

It’s no use being a big secret is it?

If you want to read a little more on NPM, check out Christopher Hood’s writings on it. They are pretty scathing. Also, a lot of the methods I discuss here are actually rooted in Systems Thinking theory. Read up on a man named Deming, and if you are a cop and interested in dialogue like this, check out @SimonJGuilfoyle ‘s book; Intelligent Policing. The link is here:

I work in a force where Evidence Based Policing is becoming daily business. I hope to bring a few examples through as case studies in forthcoming blogs; watch this space.

Thanks to my ever-helpful proof readers – you are all awesome. 🙂


6 thoughts on “The process of improving process…

  1. Another zeitgeist blog mate.

    A few good points made there particularly the big question about convicting a burglar and what to do with them. I think I’ve said before, putting them in to the hamster wheel of criminal justice and waiting for them to stop stealing is pointless because so far most burglars tell us they stopped “because I’m getting too old for this” not that they’ve seen any wrong doing. More restorative outcomes please!

    And your point about what the victim wants – I think the document “it’s a fair cop” (an NPIA doc?) makes a great point. Victims understand we aren’t going to arrest and detect everything, and whilst we should clearly strive to reduce and detect crime (of which we could discuss for hours and days) the victims first want is to be treated fairly. Get this right and a victim is satisfied that the public service she uses is working for her and not for themselves.

    If I had a pound for the times I’ve heard “I’m sorry it’s just force policy”…


  2. Superb run through where NPM has led us to steadily climb up the ladder only to realise it’s propped up against the wrong tree. We should have spotted this whilst getting lynched at public meetings at the same time as telling them crime was going down – the disconnect between stats and real life is obvious to us all as citizens is it not?

    NPM is an area I’m reading up on and it’s fascinating to apply our journey over the last 20 years to the challenges being made against NPM philosophy and practice. Applying market forces to services that we have no choice over is one basic flaw surely? Not all our ‘customers’ are glad to be our customers and every time we expose one of our darker arts such as undercover we become apologists for the whole tactic rather than contextualise the bad apples.
    Stubbsy is on the money raising co-production as a fundamental activity that can be more sustainable and effective in reducing offending and improving victim outcomes. Sit around with a few burglars and ask them what is driving them, then work out where we are going badly wrong. 40% of offenders in one NW prison are on breach of licence – system failure on a grand scale ? Burglary squads that don’t do shoplifting , as if offenders sit around working a 2-10 shift allocating what crime types they’ll be committing before refs?

    No they don’t and when I sit down with ex-offenders and talk them through our approaches they look at me like they are staring at man who is trying to swim the channel wearing concrete underpants. Now for some positives…….

    Red Rose Recovery (RRR) is a self-organised group of people all of whom have substance misuse history (not all leading to offending) and they have pulled off something no amount of mainstream NPM could pull off – they are engaging with hard to reach client groups so that they can access services , shape commissioning etc. Their only problem is constantly fighting off the pressure to conform to a system that doesn’t work because some folk inside the system see them as a threat – quite right given they are demonstrating what you are doing isn’t working !

    Pat and Dave Rogers are the parents of Adam, a young man murdered with one punch in Blackburn, they too have self-organised and had a massive impact on educating other young people about staying out of violent incidents.

    What have we in the NPM world done to deserve this added public value? RRR have been provided with levers and top cover to avoid being drowned in a system that favours the status quo, Pat and Dave have the FLO still supporting them years after they needed to. Discretionary effort from great people inside the system who know added value when they see it.
    The answer is out there we are sometimes too close to the problem to see it?


    1. I completely agree about not seeing the wood for the trees. I would also add that the people engrossed in NPM actively dislike people pointing out the trees… This has led to some very interesting interactions that I don’t want to raise here, but such activities as talking, interacting and working with these groups has been seen as not adding any value for many years – although it is clearly one of the only things that is actually tackling recidivism.

      A couple of points here from me (and believe me I am wrong on many occasions, so it is just my humble opinion!):

      1) Leadership and what good leadership looks like is not taught in the Police, it is learned. This means that prototype learning and behaviours are passed on and reinforced over time. This really develops conformity as a valuable trait, as the more you conform, the better you are treated. Tackling new thinking in the workplace involves some pretty heavy education. This is a massive and very intimidating project so I shall run away before you ask for any detail! So basically, what I am saying, is that we haven’t been seeing the trees because we haven’t told people to see them, and this has been perpetuated due to our functional leadership training. NPM has bred strong NPM leaders.

      2) The big thing that everyone wants is less victims. This is a noble pursuit and one which does not need too much questioning. In the NPM world, less crime statistics = less victims. Faster crime turnaround = good for victims. Detection = positive outcome. etc. All these things are massive simplifications, in fact they are so simplified that the complexity of human interaction has been dropped into numbers. How do you unpick that thought process? How do you make victims people again? I mean, on the parade room floor? How do we tap into that inspiring world of leadership that serves their staff and leads by example, on staff that have been absorbing NPM for over 20 years? I think some have just clicked out, or never subscribed in the first place, but a large proportion did…

      3) Finally, and this is the large question that is kind of touched on in the last point in the blog and raised by Alec above. Early action/prevention/support/greater understanding are pursuits that helps the Police understand and really look at the ‘why’ behind crime. The problem is that the culture of cops/robbers, bad guy/good guy, good policing is kicking doors in and collaring naughty people etc. is dominant. ALL of these features are absolutely necessary, but huge value (public value), lies in the supposedly ‘fluffy’ side of policing. That is where the dirty work is done, and the support groups are assisted, and the public is consulted. How do we turn something that is seen to have no value to many, come to the forefront of what we do?

      Sorry for the long reply!!! I’m passionate about all this stuff so it’s cathartic to discuss it and invite comment. (I need to go to bed!)


  3. After numerous conversations with Gaz around this and many other topics, he has convinced me to post a reply.
    I agree that NPM is one of the reasons there is a disconnect between the public and the police. I do not think public really care what percentage of crimes were detected or how large our reduction was in criminal damage. What the public care about is that when they call us…they get the best service from the police. That does not always involve detecting the crime. In fact I am sure that many police officers have attended a job where the victim wanted no further action, only to be told policy said we had to arrest. This leads to the public not calling us in the future as we don’t listen to their wishes. I often use the example of going to McDonalds and asking for a Big Mac only to be told that policy states they have to have chicken nuggets. If this was the case we would stop going to McDonalds.

    There is also a greater impact on this. I actually believe that not only is there a disconnect between the police and the public but also a disconnect between the organisation and the staff. I am confident that all police officers were asked why the wanted to join the police during a recruitment interview, and just as confident the response was along the lines of ‘I want to make a difference’ or ‘I want to give something back to the community’. The practices that evolved as a result of NPM, the target culture, led to many perverse activities. Officers were attending burglaries and recording criminal damage, robberies were recorded as assaults and theft. The officers doing these activities were not comfortable in doing it, it was not what they joined the police to do, however through fear of punishment based on their performance, or due to a culture in which this was the norm, officers continued with the perverse activities.
    We have found ourselves in a situation where we have become too internalised. The focus of our attention has been what the bosses want and not what the public want.
    The change is coming, targets have gone, performance culture is going (gradually) and the focus is much more around doing the right thing and risk and threat.
    We can go further. I am a big advocate of victim focus and community focus. The kind of principles based within Public Value (PV). Understanding individual needs may afford us the opportunity to address underlying issues as opposed to the traditional punitive response. Responding to community needs will get their support, their assistance and their buy in to solve issues without the need for the police. Allowing officers the freedom to do the right thing and not follow a pre-determined process will get them to buy into each job more. There will be greater ownership of dealing with people instead of simply addressing the process.

    Overall there are great opportunities ahead to solve long term problems as opposed to short term solutions in the name of performance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just read this again Dave. Spot on. The more I research this stuff and then come back to this blog, the more I realise that evidence is building around a lot of this. I am convinced that there are more issues around the legitimacy gap, than there are around our crime. So, how much crime ‘isn’t’ reported, as opposed to what is… really different outlook…


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