Performance Culture, so what does it look like?


This is another challenging blog, and one which – again – I make no apologies for writing. As a cop who has lived through the worst of this culture at its height, I am incredibly thankful my force moved away from these behaviours many years ago. I am aware that some persist, but you can’t fight what you can’t see, here’s some binoculars 😁

 “I need to show a reduction by March. That’s it, now you make it happen. I don’t care how you do it, but you will do it.”

Performance culture at its worst. At the height of New Public Management (public management techniques that centre around league tables, competition and percentages) the affect upon policing on the front line was felt keenly. Managers were rewarded by reduction, including bonuses for senior managers if they ‘performed’ exceptionally. These bonuses weren’t small either, and well worth the label of ‘incentive’ were anyone to ask.

In a hierarchical organisation where command and control rule, the demands for cuts were hierarchically enforced, commanded, and demanded. Control was a huge part of the deal, with micro management by senior managers a regular part of the day’s proceedings. It was commonplace to be questioned on the name of the victim from last night’s burglary, or the number of target visits that were conducted. If you didn’t know these snippets, well the wrath was unleashed with lashings of disapproval. You were ‘letting the side down,’ ‘didn’t understand how it worked,’ or were simply, ‘not up to the job.’ 

Morning meetings were incredibly well attended with frontline Sgts, coordinators (also Sgt’s), intelligence, burglary robbery team supervision, CID, several Inspectors, a Chief Inspector and sometimes a Supt. they lasted an hour at least as each area went over – in great detail – what had happened the night before and what we were doing about it. If the management system hadn’t been updated (even if the actions had been completed) there was admonishment for that PC/Sgt en route, and God forbid a lack of immediate follow up on any Serious Acquisitive Crime. At one point I costed this meeting for the year, it was astounding. This is where the phrase, ‘Shoulda, woulda, coulda meetings,’ was born.

Serious Acquisitive Crime (SAC) was a strange category because it classed domestic burglary as the same level of severity as a theft from an unattended vehicle. Invading a house and stealing keepsakes, has far more impact than a smashed quarterlight and stolen Sat Nav, but hey, they were counted and part of the league tables so they received special attention. There was a squad dedicated to SAC and we were under huge pressure to reduce our numbers, so much so that we had staff dedicated to the management of crime reports in and out of the SAC categories for jobs that were borderline in other categories. What I saw in this area wasn’t corrupt, but it was a huge waste of money and did absolutely nothing for victims. 

All that mattered was the numbers. Even when we were talking about victims, it was about victim satisfaction scores, or public confidence levels. The target wasn’t catching the burglar, it was turning the crime from red to green on the system. 

All of these behaviours were discussed extensively in the PASC inquiry into crime statistics. We as a force had moved away from this culture and all targets had been removed by the time of this inquiry. I had my fair share of ‘brushes’ with this culture, as on many occasions I refused on principle to do certain things asked of me. It harmed my work life and there were times when I questioned being a cop, I didn’t join for this stuff, and I know that many feel the same way. 

History aside, what were the defining cultural behaviours on evidence during this period? I could refer to my previous blogs on culture here and here, as much of it applies, but I won’t, let’s get specific. 


Performance meetings. What do they really do?

Well, I guess the answer is that it depends on what is in them. From a practical perspective, how do they actually help what is going to happen in the future? Who are they run by? Mgmt. Who call the shots? Mgmt. Who asks the questions? Mgmt. Who designates actions? Mgmt. Who holds the attendees to account? Mgmt. Who delves into the detail? Mgmt.

You get the picture.

I need to know how any of the above actions actually helps the frontline do their job a little better? In a time of diminishing resources (well, to be fair, all of the time) the frontline need management assistance and not increasing scrutiny. What does it really do? Forces them to comply? Yes. Coerces them to do extra on top? Definitely. How does this help form relationships and foster a learning environment?

Inspires the frontline? No. Empowers them? No. Assists them? No. Engenders trust? Definitely not. Raises standards??? Standards of what, form filling and recording?  Encourages creativity? No again. Develops people? Nope. Improves relationships? Nope. 

I could just go on forever. I just can’t see how knowing about what happened the night before (unless it’s exceptional) helps anyone? If the Mgmt. want that info, surely they could get it from the computer systems themselves? Why do frontline officers who should be dealing with victims have to sit and prep for a hours at a time to satisfy this style of micro mgmt, when the actual product of the meeting is mistrust and extra distance between ranks? It is the job of the immediate line manager to manage their team and keep an eye on standards. If you need a meeting to do this in your organisation then you are stating that the immediate line mgmt is inadequate by proxy. What message does that send?

What of actual value comes out of these meetings, and is that product actually worth taxpayers cash? 9/10 times the actions decided at the meeting would have happened anyway or had already been considered and discarded by the attending officer.

I’m sorry, I’m asking too many questions here, let’s move on. 

Individual Staff Performance

I remember a particular conversation I had about one of my team. I was told that a particular member of staff had hardly made any arrests, conducted any stop/searches, or submitted any process and that I needed to put them on a action plan to improve. This member of staff was amazing. They dealt with all the complex hand overs and sexual offences for CID, and were also qualified to run complex video interviews of victims and witnesses. As such, they were often ‘off the grid,’ and had low enforcement stats. I tried to explain this, but the numbers ruled. This member of staff was seen as poor according to the spreadsheets. 

How can I as a a supervisor justify a conversation where I tell one of my cops they are performing badly, when I know for a fact they work their backside off? I can’t. And I didn’t. 

What cultural behaviours does this create? Well people chase and get very good at things that get counted. And the thing that gets counted is the objective, and not what it is meant to measure. A classic example would be chasing arrests as they are positive indicators, which causes cops to lean towards them during interactions with the public. I think we know where that may lead. But, the opposite is also unfortunately true too. The things that don’t get measured, like empathy, understanding, compassion, demeanour, and kindness are superfluous to the amount of counted detections (cases cleared up).

It also leads to cops judging others on the same things that they judge themselves on. If you are an enforcement cop, then you may (just may) judge other cops on their ability to enforce. These officers will say (I know, I’ve heard it many times), “What does that officer actually do? I never see them in custody and they don’t like fighting, and look at the detections they’ve had? They don’t do anything!” Why the hell would we encourage staff to rate themselves against others who have totally different skill sets?

If culture likes enforcement – and New Public Management liked it a lot – those cops that do equally as important activity, but don’t get the ticks in boxes, are often derided. If you are looking for answers about how difference is ironed out in police, look no further than the assiduous habit of counting beans…

Officer mindset

What should be first and foremost in the officer’s mind when they attend an incident? I think all should agree that it should be the victim’s best interest, with a smattering of societal/experience based context. What do the setting of performance targets do in this context? Well, they become the focus instead. Upon landing at an incident governed by a target, the attending officer has the immediate goal of ensuring the victim is safe, following that, it is the satisfaction of that target that shapes the next few minutes/hours. If it isn’t, the officer will be put through the ringer following the performance meeting the next morning, as opportunities for detections are to be taken at every opportunity…

Even if the officer fights the culture, it will still be a prominent consideration throughout the interaction with the victim, often overshadowing the personal qualities of the interaction, unconsciously. As an avid ‘problem child’ in performance mgmt terms, even I caught myself wondering about the easiest way to turn crimes green and get them off my screen. 

This, is faulty thinking. As an officer, I should be sitting and listening to that victim with all of me there, in that moment, not wondering about how I escape or complete the task, but how I can help the person in front of me. This is where the most insidious facets of performance culture exist, they supplant the purpose for which officers join the job and replace them with a construct forged by spreadsheet.

The Red Button

Ok, so the button has been pressed. Performance culture is gone. What does a new culture look like?

Performance meetings

Imagine a performance meeting that became a place to learn. A meeting where a senior manager asks if there had been any screw ups or near misses in the last 24 hours? How about any really good successes? And then asks… ‘What did we learn, and how can we ensure that it does/doesn’t happen again?’ As another suggestion, what could happen if the roles were reversed and the frontline got to to ask questions on the performance of senior managers over the last last 24 hours? Imagine that both of these scenarios could take place without any blame? Where learning comes, and is shared, without any witch hunt or ‘accountability‘, which actually presently only seems to sit at the bottom… 

Let’s be radical. If nothing exceptional had happened in the last 24 hrs, how about we don’t have any meeting and we use the time to ‘go back to the floor,’ or for the frontline to use as ‘innovation time’ where they come up with ideas about how to make things better – for them and the victims. If anything, this time can be used for something that actually produces something positive, instead of retrospective negativity.

Individual Staff Performance

Boxes and grids and numbers can no longer be the future of staff appraisal. Instead of managing officers by numbers, supervision need to get out of the office and actually watch how they interact with the public. The best feedback is given at the time, and it’s also where both the cop and supervisor can actually learn from each other. Where is the feedback on values, and ethics, and kindness, on role modelling, on compassion, and on empathy? Where is the Sgt leading from the front with officers and providing visible examples of good practice to generate learning? Where is the Sgt learning from the PCs about their leadership style and how they can improve?

The quality of conversation in this area is rubbish and governed by numbers. It needs changing. 

Officer mindset

Targets must go. And never return. Numbers must never supplant the officers discretion in doing what is right for the victim. This means autonomy, and it means trust, and it means mgmt empowering frontline staff to interact with the victim and do what is right for them, not what is right for the organisation. This means letting go of spreadsheets as the definer of activity, and using them as an indicator instead. It means mature performance management with statistical process control charts and long term outlooks. Above all, it means change, and big change at that. 


As a final note, numbers and charts denote control. They denote tangibility, predictability, and they allow simplification of complex interactions. These are useful, but where is the comfort with uncertainty, the acceptance of being out of control, and the understanding of complexity? Cops do not commit crime, so blaming them for it is like blaming midwives for pregnancy. The future is uncertain, and pretending to have control of it is immensely damaging. It promotes a belief that police actually do far more than they do, and places false reliance on activities that actually hold no value. 

The future doesn’t look like the past. A=B is dead and gone, and we are in an environment of simultaneous equations in its place. It’s a complicated landscape with lots of interdependencies, I would just like cops to come to work and enjoy what they do, and work hard because they want to, not because I (or anyone else) forces them to. And when they make mistakes – and they will, just like we all do – I’d rather we take that learning and get it out there to stop it happening again. 

Performance culture holds us back, not pushes us forwards. It’s time to let it go.

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