Always one to dip my toes into controversial waters, this blog may read as quite challenging for some. It isn’t my aim to muddy those waters, or throw controversy out there and stoke the rhetoric, this blog is about getting back to basics.
What do we mean when we talk about ‘increasing diversity‘?
I mean, right back to basics.
- What does increasing diversity do?
- What is it aiming at?
- Is what we are after going to do what it should be doing?
- When we are ‘diverse’ (whatever that means), how will we know?
All of these questions are difficult to answer, but before we put any efforts into trying to improve diversity in our constabularies we absolutely have to understand what it is we are trying to do…
You may have heard about a number of initiatives in constabularies up and down the country that seek to address diversity based issues. They are usually lined up with figures, and these usually illustrate that forces up and down the country are unrepresentative. This term tends to mean that the proportion of employees that they have do not mirror the proportion of population that they have in the community. As an example, 30% of the community may be black or asian, but the proportion within the constabulary may be 4%. This is the usual framework that dictates discussion around ‘diversity’, and indeed many departments are actually created in order to deal with this issue.
Framing diversity in this way makes it a really simple idea. If we reach a particular percentage, then we are diverse! Yet, hold on… are we? Why do we have these figures? What do they mean? How do they ‘deliver’ diversity? What is it we are really seeking?
I argue when I’m speaking at events that there is real danger to be encountered when we reduce really complicated issues to ones of figures and sums. Systems Thinking approaches talk at great length about the measures that ‘define’ our work, instead of measuring them. Follow the targets and all you get is numbers, and you can bet that numbers don’t go all the way towards solving what has become the ‘diversity problem.’
To understand the problem a little better, you have to go back to when diversity started to become something that affected the police. It goes without saying that the police had entrenched practices that actually ironed out diversity for decades. Recruitment was very prescriptive, with height measures, gender disparity, and even lifestyle and income checks. There were restrictions on where to live and who to marry, where you could socialise and who with, and home visits from senior officers to check on the ‘decency and fit’ of the candidate’s social background. To see how far we have come, some of these were still in place when I joined (approximately 15 years ago).
So in context, we have come a long way.
There is some great research starting to emerge around measuring fairness in police forces, focusing in on race and background. One study in particular shows that senior black officers in the US have differing values to the rank and file, and this can result in conflict internally. In other words, diversity isn’t all rosy. Diversity can lead to conflict in the workplace, but this in itself can lead to improved decision making. Tension and disagreement in these areas force us to consider alternative viewpoints – a potent weapon in combatting groupthink (see Maskaly et al. (2017) for further).
The riots in the early 80’s, along with Orgreave, Stephen Lawrence, and Hillsborough began to expose some real issues with these methods of recruitment. They illustrated how tight the culture became, how much dissent was discouraged, and how pockets of really poor attitudes and behaviours were left unchallenged. Some of the recommendations from the Scarman and Macpherson reports addressed the uniformity of the police workforce – quite rightly pointing out that diverse views and thinking were distinctly unwelcome.
New Public Management then stepped up to the plate, and after a lack of progress on the recommendations, they obliged with a collection of targets and measures that began to represent diversity. Throw in performance culture, and everything that went along with it including bonuses and competition in the workplace, and a police officers job was reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet.
Diversity can not be about numbers on a spreadsheet. They may be a measure, something we consider that points us in the right direction or gives us extra information, but let’s be clear, diversity is not percentages.
My research indicated that during a single recruitment in Lancashire, 93% of recruits already knew someone in the police. Most of this 93% were friends and acquaintances. We know that jobs can often be spread through word of mouth, but it’s not just the awareness of the jobs, it’s the information that assists the applicant with choosing to apply and taking part in the recruitment process. If our current officers are helping their friends and associates out, does that make the majority of our successful applicants friends and acquaintances of the current demographic of police officers? My research would indicate that it does… And that has important ramifications for what we consider to be diversity inside our forces now.
Firstly, candidates who have no contact with existing officers are immediately, and unconsciously disadvantaged by the existence of a social support network that they can’t access. Our internal staff support external ones, and obviously these tend to be people that they know or share time with. Other research tells us that we are likely to socialise and spend time with those that have similar values and world views to ourselves – if you do the math, it tells us that we may be unconsciously closing the door on external applicants, especially ones whose communities do not tend to have much police contact. (There is supporting theory in Homophily and Ethnocentricity for further reading in this area.)
Secondly, our culture is wired to do this ^^^^^ We tend to favour internal routes to selection. If you want to be a cop, become a PCSO, a Special, a Comms operator, or a Custody Detention Officer, and the work your way in. I realise that this is tradition and that it pays to have established career pathways, but more complicated questions around these traditional routes must be considered. If we are constantly recruiting from our comms room, what is the knock on impact on resilience in there? How do we pay for the constantly rotating training and development? How do we develop deep skills and consistency?
Moreover, on the above point, they are very different jobs. I have worked with PCSO’s who weren’t really interested in community work, but instead were there to gather experience to become an officer. Does this really lend itself to problem solving and long-term relationship building?
And thirdly, we spend so much time talking about how our recruitment processes filter out 3% of candidates from other backgrounds at point B, but rarely do we actually address the underlying problem of a lack of applications in the first place. If we spend a huge amount of money ironing out processes and ensuring absolute proportionality in our operational exercises, what is the knock on effect if only 4% of applications are from diverse backgrounds in the first place? We may not ‘need’ to put effort into gathering more applications because each post is way over-subscribed, some have over 20 applications per officer role in some recruitment windows. Why on earth would anyone want more? Well, the answer to this question depends on whether it’s worth considering the value that could be brought to our constabularies by those that do not apply/are not aware/have no existing social connections with current officers?
Towards an evidence informed approach
Having spent a lot of time in this area of research, what can we actually do to make a real difference? The first is to take note of Einstein:
We really need to step away from numbers as an outcome, and treat them as a measure. We need to address underlying issues with our recruitment strategies, such as the fact that the majority of applicants find out about constabulary jobs via word of mouth or by religiously checking the website. How do we reach those people who are fantastic advocates for their communities, but simply have never considered becoming a police officer because they’ve never been exposed to the profession?
The answer to this question lies in focused community engagement; the building of relationships in communities where we have little to no representation. Our staff and officers are role models, they are just often sucked into the system, with little time to invest in doing the more traditional police work of building relationships and cultivating trust. In many ways, this is actually a part of the evidence for the existence of neighbourhood policing. Building relationships in the community will create social connections, and these may lead to new lines of recruitment and new flows of information. In other words, if social connections are important for recruitment, let’s go and make some where we need them.
How do we look to address the value of information passed between our existing employees and potential candidates? This innocent practice has great influence on who becomes a police officer, and whilst changes here may be culturally painful, it may be time to totally rethink how we approach recruitment. The more we propagate existing recruitment strategies, the more value there is in knowing someone who has been through it.
And finally, we have to look beyond the numbers and look instead at why the numbers are there. The original problems identified in the Scarman and Macpherson reports centred around legitimacy; they were about fair treatment and mutual respect. They were about procedural justice, improved connection and communications between the police and our diverse communities, and they were about dialogue – making sure that forces actually listen.
We see departments up and down the country chasing increased percentages, whilst underlying causes like unconscious bias are left relatively unaddressed. We remove internal groupthink from the debate, and instead focus on whether we hit 6% or 7% in the latest round of recruitment. And finally, we fail to consider what success looks like. When we hit 7% do we go back and pretend like the ever-present issue of diversity is done and dusted?
The issues above are being addressed by the College of Policing and HMIC, and despite being told on many occasions that they speak a different language, they are persisting with issues such as unconscious bias and valuing difference. The problem is that these haven’t yet been linked up in the policing psyche. Diversity is about percentages? No, it’s legitimacy. It’s always been about legitimacy. It is what it was about when the conversation started, and despite being rudely hijacked by New Public Management techniques, it is still about that today.
It’s time to reset what we mean by diversity, and stop relegating important underlying causes like unconscious bias to the back burner, whilst we recruit from our own social connections and focus on spreadsheets. Diversity is far wider than numbers and it always has been, can we focus on what matters, instead of what’s counted?