This is difficult for me to write. I know that many officers will read this and feel angry. If you mention direct entry (DE from here on in), there is an automatic and visceral dislike that shows itself, even when some try to conceal it. Not everyone feels like this, but I would say that this is a majority opinion – and one that I held myself several years ago.
There are some great people in the police service, and I think they show a great deal of integrity when they say to direct entrants, ‘I don’t believe in the scheme, but I will support you wherever I can, because I would do that for everyone else.’ It’s difficult to intensely dislike a particular initiative, but then actively support the recruits that become the result of it. It takes courage, resilience, and an ounce of critical thinking that allows judgement to be suspended whilst a level of support is provided.
This aside, I’ve also heard stories of a physical lack of support for these recruits, and this includes those that enter the service under Police Now. This sets up the schemes to fail, as very tight cultures (and the police has a tight culture) can reject quite violently those that don’t ‘belong.’
Why is this ‘belonging’ so strong? There are many different reasons, but several really strong ones, and before I start to talk about them, let’s just go over the ‘evidence base’ conversation.
This is actually happening:
“We don’t believe in this fad that is evidence based policing and to be honest we can function without it. We don’t need academics telling us how to do our job. It will pass.“
“Where’s the evidence base for this?”
And this is also bolstered by:
“Direct Entry is progressive, and we can bring in new ideas and approaches using this new approach to recruitment.” With regards to Inspectors and Superintendents.
*DE introduced at chief constable level*
“Where’s the evidence base for this?“
I don’t want to cast judgement on this. What I can see though, is a desire for the rationale behind the changes that are happening, and I think that desire is justified, rational and deserved. Procedural Justice Theory tells us that the outcome of a decision is often not as important as the understanding behind the process of coming to it, and the sharing of the rationale and the ‘evidence’ behind it. Maybe officers and staff would be more accepting of these changes, if the rationale for them was shared and discussed in an open way?
So, why do we have Direct Entry? I can’t tell you what was in the minds of the people making the decisions, but I can possibly discuss some of the structural issues behind its introduction. Maybe this will help with the rationale part.
The police have a very strange employment arrangement. You can’t make a police officer redundant. When I speak to people outside the police, this is the strangest thing to them. Short of gross misconduct, illness or injury, or committing crime, police officers are set for their career, which is now up to and over 38 years long. If you are a cop and this is your normal, realise that this is anything but normal for everyone who isn’t a police officer.
This employment arrangement makes for organisations that have very static work forces (backed up by official turnover rates). When austerity hit, forces up and down the country had to cut higher percentages of police staff, because they couldn’t lose officers. Officers in turn often filled staff positions, as the function that was performed by those staff members was still essential. Officers are often a lot more expensive than staff, so this made for quite nasty efficiency figures in some positions.
Now, movement between forces is also quite rare. Transferee programs are often in short supply and carry low numbers. Freeze recruitment through austerity and this means even less movement. You are left with relatively large organisations that carry the same staff, for many, many years, up the same linear rank progression, who rarely leave their constabularies, and rarely receive perspective from other forces. To compound this, outsiders who transfer in are often returned to uniform constable and their prior experience disregarded – ultimately having to start again. Relationships are very, very important in this environment, you are working with the same people in the same surroundings for decades.
What does the above tell us about the physical structure of police forces? It tells us that they are insular. And when you look at how officers learn to lead within these structures, this insularity is further reinforced.
Within the UK policing landscape, there is an under-developed leadership infrastructure. The MOD, the NHS, and Education all have leadership programs that are decades old, with bespoke academies, programs and career pathways. Despite the odd course, and a singular fast track, or high potential track that used to carry around 50 officers nationally per year, police leaders (by and large) learn to be leaders from current police leaders. And until you hit senior level (NPCC), the leaders you learn from are usually within your own constabulary.
If you also look at the custom and practice around police promotion, you will see that current leaders always hold the keys to the promotion of future leaders. This even includes ‘allowing’ officers to apply for promotion, and when you look into the training required for this responsibility, in most forces there isn’t any – at all. This is reversed at PNAC (Police National Assessment Center), when often for the first time candidates are externally evaluated – anyone looking at this structure from the outside could understand why PNAC was such a big deal, it’s often the first time that police leaders step outside their local leadership support systems. You need personal backing to apply for this too.
Now, if you couple the above paragraphs with the research around unconscious bias, which illustrates that we show preference for those that share the same values, opinions and behaviors as us, it creates a system for the propagation of leadership that looks like the current leadership… Without external influence, professionalisation in selection, or checks and balances, people will naturally gravitate towards supporting those that behave as they do, it’s what our brains do, it makes us comfortable.
In private industry, tight groupthink leads to organisational failure. Competition keeps organisations innovating and changing, or they are quickly left behind and become forgotten. There is a constant pressure to learn. In public service the operating model is very different, but the pressure to push to change is absent, there are no boards of shareholders eager for profit. There is a complex accountability system, and it does have the power to drive reform, but events that are playing out now show how difficult this system is to navigate.
My research (blog here) illustrates that there is a lot more chance of success in the police recruitment system, if you already have police connections. I am currently studying social isolation in policing for my PhD, looking specifically at the range and number of external connections that officers keep following joining the police. I can’t presume the findings of my research, but I can discuss my own experience.
I lost many of my external friends when I joined the police. A small number happened quickly, but the majority were lost over time to the shifts, and the cancelled rest days, and the tiredness, and ultimately the values that I had to uphold. Anecdotally, this is normal for many officers, and the job itself often becomes a ‘family business.’ I have worked with many officers who have had parents, siblings, or extended family in the job. The camaraderie, the support networks and the friendships made because of this are – I would think – unique, and very, very strong.
If you put the above two paragraphs together, the end conclusion is that recruits often know police officers, and police officers often have quite tight social circles. This can lead to a tight recruitment pool, that we may struggle to break due to the passing of information between tight social circles that sustain themselves passed the point of police recruitment.
Putting it together
When people ask for an evidence base for direct entry, one only has to look at the systems that maintain the profession. We have special employment conditions that ensure the longevity and stability of our workforce. Leadership within the workforce is developed through contact and development with the current leadership, rather than any external exposure or formalised career pathways/structure. And our recruitment is sustained by the tight social circles that we maintain through the nature of the work that we do.
It’s a potent combination of factors that create a unique brand of insularity.
Direct Entry directly challenges the above structure, ultimately breaking the insularity by injecting new experience into the leadership structure. All of the ‘learned’ leadership is challenged by an approach that is distinctly un-police – the intended result being forces that approach policing in a different way. This ‘different way’ may be down to behaviours, for instance the hiring of leaders who were not developed and created through a strict command and control based hierarchy, different world views, or it may be down to bringing in new skills and capabilities. The aim is to ‘add to’ the current police leadership offering, not ‘subtract from.’
Aside from all of the above discussion, it is very, very important for serving officers and staff to realise that their ‘normal’ is far from normal. Direct Entry isn’t direct entry in other organisations, it’s just normal. People can re-train and apply for any job they want, at any level of experience that they want. It doesn’t mean that they will be successful, but it does mean that the opportunities for change and external challenge are open. Continuing professional development allows access to progression externally, and this weakens the strength of existing social ties and the gathering of ‘backers’ to traverse gateways that just aren’t there (or are considerably weaker) outside the police.
Police rank is a structure peculiar to the police, and the way that we see the world is filtered through the epaulettes that people wear. Direct Entry challenges this construct, and linear progression, and time served, and those are 3 incredibly established pillars of our culture. The challenge to these structures challenges the way we see the world, and that results in that pit of the stomach unease when schemes like these are discussed.
There are some fundamental philosophies behind direct entry that bother me. I’m passed the concerns of safety or risk, I just can’t see any officer accepting an order that they think is unsafe without challenge. Direct entrants don’t exist in a vacuum, and there is a large system around them that they will learn from quickly, and also receive feedback from. I also understand that bringing in new experience, world views and skills can benefit policing. There is a fundamental assumption however, that the employment market is one of the silver bullets for culture change – and I think this under-estimates the efforts needed to bring about impactful reform.
I think Direct Entry challenges the police world view, I think it exposes the police to elements of competition and challenge that have been present in almost every other labour market for decades. But, I don’t think that the small numbers on the scheme can overcome the leviathan of stability that represents police culture. This puts the entrants at risk, but it doesn’t presume failure. With significant resilience and internal support, candidates can do great things, and I personally hope that they do.
There is something distinctly neoliberal about direct entry: Expose the police forces to the labour market, and the market will provide the reform through increased competition…’ There’s a big assumption there, a BIG one. It presumes that external candidates will have the influence to really break that insularity. It is possible, that the tight insularity – which let’s face it, may actually be necessary for mutual support and wellbeing – will simply absorb Direct Entrants into the functioning system, with all those external skills and capabilities rendered powerless by social structures that are hugely entrenched.
I would point out at this point, that insularity does not equal poor performance. But, there are some ideological discussions to have here. ‘The Police are the Public, Public are the Police’ perspective would state that in the case of employment – the police are very much the police. Again, this doesn’t presume that we do a better or worse job, but in terms of some of the fundamental bed rocks of UK policing, we are out of kilter with the public’s employment model. Who’s to say this isn’t necessary? Not I, but I would open my mind to having it tested – which is essentially what DE is.
I wrote this blog because I understand that people will want simple answers to why direct entry is here. There isn’t a simple answer. There are reports into senior officer misconduct, several notable policing scandals, poor diversity, and an employment and leadership system that develops very tight views of the world. All of these contribute to the environment that has led to changing the structure of police employment.
Can we prove it ‘works’ before doing it? Well, this is a good question, but the answer is a resounding no. You can’t prove anything like this works without doing it. There is no test constabulary, where we can drop external candidates in and see how they perform in comparison to control groups. There is also an abundance of evidence that it works elsewhere, with forces across Europe and the world using their version of direct entry over many years. Let’s face it, it is the employment model used by almost every other occupation, so it is highly likely that it will ‘work’ to some degree. However, the evidence for this change doesn’t lie in whether they work, but why it was considered that this change was necessary.
The question should not be, where is the evidence that this will work, it should be what was the evidence that led to this becoming an option. This in turn leads to questions about whether DE will go some way to solving, or contributing to wider solutions that work towards mitigating them. Will it work? Only time will tell, but I do know that the louder the service protests the changes, the more it evidences the insularity. There’s a fine line between appearing defensive and insular, and raising worthy concerns whilst keeping an open mind.
I for one don’t think this protest will stop, slow or even affect the instigation of further reforms in this area – only very different approaches to the way we police, and a concerted effort to reform ourselves may do that…