The squeezed middle

Over the last few years, there has been reams of discussion on Twitter and of inside policing about how the Job is becoming more and more unpalatable. I could use the acronym #TJF (the job’s ******) or look at the nostalgic ‘it wasn’t like that in my day,’ interactions that occur daily to point you at the evidence for this feeling. There has however been little research that begins to look at the longitudinal interactions between recruitment and morale. This blog is officer centric, and I do apologise for that, but I couldn’t find the equivalent levels of staff data.

Recent research by the Federation seeks to start to turn over this problem and allow us to see how morale fluctuates over the years. Internally, some forces still don’t do staff surveys, and when they are completed the results can often not be shared. There is however a set of forces that are beginning to also collate evidence on the effects of ethical leadership on their workforce, and the research is excellent quality – leading me to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Why am I talking about this? ^^^ Well, the point I am making is that when people say ‘It’s never been this bad,’ my brain starts to ask, ‘compared to what, and how are you measuring that?’ Is it that you have experienced better days, is it circumstances very particular to the current working environment, is it changing expectations, or is it simply something that we have always done and said in policing?

I distinctly remember landing as a scared probationer in Blackpool town centre, and being told that the job isn’t what it used to be repeatedly. Clearly, some of the things may have changed for the better, some for the worse, and if you really try and pick apart the patchwork quilt of alterations to the work, you quickly realise that you may be there forever. Nailing down exactly what is causing lower morale or the feelings of lack of opportunity at work is very, very difficult.

We can however look for some larger changes that have clearly had an impact. Changes to working regulations are always hugely unpopular in all spheres of work. Having your contract of employment changed or tweaked away from the conditions you accepted when you signed up will always create animosity of some sort. Yet who has been affected by these changes and how do they actually hit the workforce in different ways?

I’ve used some data from the Police Workforce Report 2017. All of the following graphs have come from that report, and despite it being a dry read, it is well worth a look.

So, what is going on with our workforce?

The first graph that I want to show sets the scene for the entire blog:

 

Screenshot (40)

 

Can you spot the outlier? If you look at the distribution of the curve, you can see that there’s a big spike in the middle that doesn’t follow the rest of the pattern. This is the major recruitment in the early 2000’s, driven by New Public Management and a huge focus on crime reduction. This period included the Reassurance Project, the huge drive to recruit full Neighbourhood Policing teams, and a large part of the later disparaged performance culture. If you look at it in context, there’s almost a period of double recruitment.

So what is going on with these officers? Well, as one of them, I can tell you. Earlier on in service when opportunities were great and movement common, they will have seen promotion boards every three months, often accompanied by an abundance of temporary promotion roles that were given out regularly. They may have seen their forces openly encouraging people to take their exams, as there was often a dearth of applicants for promotion, with some people being promoted simply through need. Switches into different departments and moves into CID were plentiful, and it was worth checking internal bulletins daily because jobs were always advertised.

Chasing promotion or development at this length of service (0-5 years) was rare and often frowned upon. For this reason, a relatively small proportion of these officers would have been able to take advantage of plentiful opportunity. This was the environment that they spent their formative years in the service within.

Then, austerity hit. What did it do to opportunity?

Screenshot (37)

 

Well, in reality it halved them. But wait, at this point, most of those people that were interested in promotion or lateral development from the almost double recruitment would be just about getting ready to consider some movement… This is where the new recruits from the major recruitment, would be reaching 7-10 years experience, a time when many inside the service will be trying to figure out where they may fit. So, just as this major recruitment hits the time in service to consider progression, the opportunities halve.

In reality – let’s do the maths – the amount of total (yes that means all) substantive promotions across the country between 2010 and 2015 equates to approximately 9,250, if distributed equally across all the forces this is just over 200 promotions per force, over a 5 year period. Let’s remember however that the distribution is far from equal (forces range hugely in number), and that the numbers do not account for multiple promotions over that period. So if someone had three promotions, that would of course need to be taken into account. For the lower ranks in my force, for roughly the same period, there were no promotions at all at the lowest ranks, and many departments were amalgamated to reduce cost – further reducing the opportunities to develop laterally.

In short, this almost double recruitment cohort, would have ideally been met with sustained levels of opportunity without austerity kicking in, with austerity, proportionally their chance to progress has been dropped to a quarter of their colleagues who went before them.

Internal data indicates that for us, this cohort is where we have the least engagement with the organisation. When you scrutinise the above data, it’s easy to see why. After a significant investment in their pensions and a decade with the organisation they have been informed that their terms and conditions have been changed, their opportunities (relative to other colleagues that they have seen progress over their first 5-10 years) have been cut in four, and lateral development and movement has been severely squeezed.

So what does this all mean? I haven’t written this blog from my perspective as I trod a different path and worked on development outside the organisation (secondment to the College and HMIC) and have been privileged to receive some benefits through the HPDS scheme. This blog is more about the way that we target opportunities, support, development and communication inside our wider organisations.

If the data is telling us that there is this cohort, and that this cohort have both felt the cuts and changes more keenly, and seen the biggest shift in provision of opportunity, then organisational response should be aimed towards dealing with these issues. Taking a broad brush approach allows equality of access, but it does not allow fairness of provision. No tangible ‘advantage’ for promotion or selection could be given to this cohort, but how we seek to foster support and opportunity should always bear this information in mind.

Practical considerations

There are some myths about the levels of officers leaving the service, so here is the data:

Screenshot (42)

 

Voluntary resignation is at roughly the proportion that it was ten years ago, with a slight trend downwards and then back upwards over the period. What this data doesn’t tell us, is the level of leavers’ service. Although we know that leavers overall are rising, we don’t know how many of this cohort of officers is choosing to stay, or how many are choosing to leave.

 

UK Police Officer Leavers

Police officer leavers 2007-2017

 

Although there is a rise evidenced in the above chart, it is worthy of mention that the data fluctuates between roughly 5.3% and 6.7%. Although the trend may be significant (in mathematical terms), there has been no huge jump in leavers of the service. This data tells us that the cohort that is least engaged, is by and large, remaining in service.

Practically, what can we do about this? There are all sorts of initiatives that may help increase engagement with the squeezed middle. They need to meaningful and deliberate, and this work is made even more necessary because of who these people may represent. They are likely to be very experienced and knowledgeable, influential to those younger in service, and possibly acting as mentors or in temporary supervision roles. They are also likely to have received considerable investment in skills, equipment and experience. Despite this, their motivation for public service may have taken a hit, and their entitlements over the long term have been hugely affected.

So, we have a very valuable cohort in the squeezed middle. How do we address this organisationally? There are possibilities to address this practically for the service, but when discussing interventions with regards to wellbeing, personal development and mentoring, the attraction of this cohort is very important. Procedural Justice theory tells us that when people feel that they have been treated fairly, they then reflect that in their own behaviours and actions with the public. This presents as a risk with this cohort, as it is fairly clear that there are likely to be feelings of unfairness, both organisationally and politically.

In the extreme possibilities section, there is targeted work on career change support, ring-fenced promotion/development opportunities by length of service, and bespoke leadership development. The provision of these to a particular cohort is unpalatable, and may affect procedural justice elsewhere in the organisation, so communication to all affected would be essential. It would also be useful to make sense of both the financial and physical effects of austerity for this cohort, and CPD events on the impacts of pension changes, the possibilities of other investment avenues, and career planning may see a large take up.

The later service cohorts of officers are also very likely to have been affected, although they may have had chance to take advantage of longer periods of possible movement earlier in their service. They are now experienced a very high level of competition from the ‘squeezed middle’ for any progression opportunities, and as such they too will be feeling the pinch.

Is it right just to do nothing, or inform any member of this particular group that, ‘this is just the cops, you need to deal with it?’ I don’t think it is, because for this cohort it isn’t ‘just the cops,‘ it’s a very specific version of it. They have caught the worst of austerity after a significant investment in public service, and likely been unable to benefit from when opportunity was more plentiful. Although there is something to be said for personal resilience and public service motivation, to assume that external circumstances have had a proportionate effect on the workforce is to ignore the fact that they have had anything but…

 

This blog was intended to provide some context to what austerity has done to the opportunities and motivation of particular cohorts of officers within policing. It doesn’t provide any solid answers, only some possible solutions, and these are likely to be difficult to implement. Having the knowledge makes a difference though, especially to those who are inside this cohort. Making sense of the lack of opportunity and how they are feeling and why may offer some understanding and explain particular attitudes and behaviours in the workplace. I would welcome any suggestions as to how to deal with these issues, so please feel free to comment below!

 

 

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