After an interesting weekend, where the Twitter seemed to explode with a whole host of accusations towards the College of Policing, and by-proxy towards me (having previously worked there for 12 months), there are clearly some issues that need ironing out. There are many questions that need answering, some via the College, but others are about our culture and the way that we – as a collective – view and react towards change within our midst. Amongst many things, this blog will discuss what ‘evidence’ actually is in the context of change, and how it is used. I can’t speak for the College and I won’t try, I think there is lots of work needed to connect with officers and that this weekend is a great example of why.
When writing these blogs I am trying to bridge a gap between academic writing and police blogging. It is no small feat and requires me to re-write and re-visit each paragraph on repeat, until I finally hit publish and await the ensuing discussion. I tread a fine line between not using purely research based writing to inform because it is dry and often difficult to read, and leaving it out and posting an opinion piece. For this reason I leave out academic referencing, and more often than not, the authors too. Within the first few paragraphs of my last blog here I actually discuss about 50+ studies. It is in shorthand and you can’t see the individual studies, but I have written discussions on the same studies several times (including for my recent MSc). I discuss how ‘good’ the studies were, (with regards to their methods) and what they actually tell us when you gather them together. The evidence is evaluated using the Maryland Scale in terms of how reliable it is. The lowest standard of evidence is opinion, rising to RCT trials. I’m not totally sold on this model, but it provides a useful guide and is often used across Policing as way of evaluating studies.
So, what is it about academic study that everyone is shouting about? “It’s not policing and policing is a fast paced environment., where quick decisions are made, and we deal with disorder and high risk crisis incidents etc. etc.” This is a commonly held view in policing, and to put it very shortly, it’s total tosh. I’m not usually this direct, and I know the middle road is usually the best to tread, but this needs saying: It’s anti-intellectualism, it reveals stigma, and at its basest form it evidences prejudice. Learning from the rigorous work of others is exactly what creating a ‘knowledge base’ for the profession is all about. It stops us making the same mistakes again and again and it ensures that we as a collective remain open to new learning. There’s actually a really good article called the ‘Dialogue of the Deaf’ (I can’t post it as it is subject to copyright) and it details the issues between the Police and Academia really well. The police say that the research is not operationally useful, and the academics conversely want to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s (and Academia’s) sake. This leads to an impasse, where the cops want useful knowledge that makes a difference, and academics pursue knowledge that will get them published. This impasse is dissolving, and we are seeing some great collaborative work that hits the best of both worlds.
The scientific method
I don’t want to go into too much detail as I can hear the snores already kicking in, but the methodology of academic study is the bit that creates its value. What do I mean by methodology? It is the rigorous questioning of the way that the data is gathered and assessed, that ensures its value later down the line. It isn’t about quick snapshot study, it’s about planning and executing, and then testing and re-testing, and then questioning your findings. This is a reflective cycle – this means that you are constantly checking and self-checking, and then peer checking your analysis. It means that you are testing out ideas (hypothesis) against data that actually means something, instead of collecting data that holds huge inherited bias. This is the difference between real study, and pseudoscience. Here’s a quick graphic that compares the two:
I heard – during many exchanges on Twitter yesterday – that academic study has no place in policing. Well, it doesn’t if you want to be locked in the column on the right? If you were to take a selection of the way that we used to view police ‘performance’ during performance culture, you will see that the methods that the police used were firmly sat in the right column. But as Simon Guilfoyle has been discussing recently, that’s what happens when you don’t provide training in the methods used to manage properly (discussed in his latest blog here). There are huge risks if we carry on sitting in the right column, like a lack of institutional/personal learning, doing harm when we think we are doing good, and making decisions based on misunderstood data that ultimately harm our staff.
In shorthand, if you view ‘evidence’ as belonging in the right column, there are big issues with drawing meaningful conclusions. It doesn’t mean that the info isn’t useful, especially with regards to quick and dirty opinion polls. They are great for examining opinion, but opinion isn’t evidence of anything other than opinion, and not liking something isn’t evidence that it does/doesn’t work… This is really common in any workplace, and leads to Semelweiss type problems, where new things that work are rejected by professional communities because they are counter-culture. Some changes that are really positive can be rejected by the workforce because of the way that they are perceived/implemented – not because of whether they actually work (read anything on Change Mgmt. by Leandro Herrero/Peter Senge if you want studies on this).
This is the most common issue I have seen, and it is really dangerous. The misunderstanding around evidence based practice is causing a questioning of innovative changes. It’s right to question – and it should be encouraged at all times, but using the call for evidence to stifle new practice is totally counter-productive. Here is a break down of what Innovation can look like in the police, (follow the link) but if you want it shorthand, if you don’t take risks or have a supporting culture behind you, it makes it ridiculously difficult. I think the risk taking is happening more often now, but the supportive culture is absent. This is a result of many things and cannot be ‘blamed’ on anyone. It’s something we should all take ownership for though, and work to develop if we are ever going to see any positive change take place.
What is happening now in the policing community is interesting to see, as ‘Evidence Based Practice’ – previously debunked by the community as ‘academic interference’, has been taken on, bastardised, and it is now being used as a weapon against change.
‘Where is the evidence that Direct Entry at Inspector works?’
There isn’t any. How can there be? We’ve never tried it.
‘Where is the evidence that police need degrees?’
There isn’t any. How can there be? We’ve never tried it.
Where is the evidence that Police Now works?
There isn’t any. How can there be? We’ve never tried it.
I could go on. The above questions lead to speculation at best. If you were to take Direct Entry as a great example, I could tell you that it works in many, many places around the world. But I can’t tell you if it will work here. But that’s ok. Let’s be comfy with that and try it out. If it doesn’t work, we’ll evaluate it properly and we will see if it was worth trying. There will always be risk in trying something new, but there are enough checks and balances in place to mitigate that risk (like lots of other people to learn from and keep an eye/develop them in the workplace etc.).
Another discussion point: “Why are we rolling it out if we haven’t evaluated it properly?” Well, forces have asked to be part of the trial. This makes the trial bigger, and in turn this allows for a better evaluation to take place. Basing a country-wide full roll out on the experience of a small amount of people is pretty thin, so let’s widen that base out and make the evaluation more robust. The better the evaluation, the more learning we all take from it. This is essentially growing the sample that you use to draw conclusions from, and the greater the sample, the more representative the results.
And it could be that the schemes fail – and many people will love that (clearly), but early indications are that they aren’t the apocalyptic disgrace heralded by the doomsayers. Let’s wait on the full evaluations before we jump all over something that may be very positive for staff in the workplace.
The real evidence for change
By all accounts (and many staff surveys), workplace wellbeing in the police is pretty poor in many places in the UK, and we have just seen the largest proportion of senior officers ever under investigation for potential misconduct. On these issues alone, I would say that we have a solid evidence base for the reasons for some change to take place in the way that we see leadership.
Having just conducted a study myself on promotion and selection within the cops (specifically with relation to BME candidates and frontline perceptions), I can say that some officers’ trust in current police promotion systems in the UK is appalling. They do not believe that the systems select the best candidates consistently, they believe they are often unfair, and that they suffer lowered morale because of them. The information around the systems and the way that they are used can promote an environment where nepotism and networking are perceived to hold higher value than competence. This research will land shortly hopefully and it is currently changing practice in individual forces in the UK.
Finally: culture. There are many positive aspects to our culture, but there are many repeatedly evidenced issues with our culture (discussed here) that we really need to sort out. We are an internal looking beast, and the scepticism and cynicism with which we view ‘outsiders’, the suspicious and socially removed behaviours that we evidence every day on twitter, and the – let’s face it – downright nastiness (that verges on bullying) shown towards those with contrary views to the masses are evidence within themselves. They have been studied repeatedly by ethnographers and they are enduring behaviours that are just toxic. They don’t make for a healthy work environment, and they don’t make for an environment conducive to real and actual debate. I shall continue to bang this drum – and I don’t care if I get pilloried – as ‘openness’ is important for the police to develop a better relationship with the public, and we have to try and ‘open’ our views and test our assumptions as much as possible if we are ever to improve on this.
I suspect, that the way we view these changes has much to do with our own personal circumstances. During change, we have a tendency to immediately ask: “How does this affect me?” There are some great books on this by John Kotter that deal with coping with change in life/organisations, and this is an enduring (and researched) trait. It leads us to make assumptions like:
Direct Entry is bad because it affects my promotion chances.
Direct Entry is bad because I have had to work my way up there.
Direct Entry is bad because my knowledge is special and outsiders don’t have it.
Direct Entry is bad because they will be relatively poor decision makers.
Now these may all be personally held beliefs reinforced by experience. I can’t question them, they are the beholders’ and totally sacrosanct. I would however question the way that others’ views are seen. Do their contrary opinions hold equal weight? Are contrary ideas seen to be accepted and debated? Or are they attacked and seen as some sort of virus?
Are these questions above the right ones to be asking at all? Should they not be – and we are a public service – about the service we provide:
Does direct entry create different leaders that benefit the service?
Is it possible to do these jobs without the lengthy experience beforehand?
Is the knowledge really that special? Or are there lots of other ‘knowledges’ we can learn from?
Is it possible that new types of decision making are a good thing?
These can be explored during a pilot, but they can only be explored during a pilot. We can’t evidence them. Is it possible that direct entry may change the service for the better? Of course it is! Is it therefore something that can explored? Again, of course it is! The ‘openness’ I am discussing in the blog above isn’t about agreeing with the idea, it’s about having the mindset to explore new things with a critical – but tolerant – eye. Acceptance of difference (including difference of thought) is a choice.
I’m not sure the tolerance is there yet. Maybe we can all work on it some more?
Disclaimer: a) I never worked on Direct Entry (although many assumed I did), and I’m not totally sold on it operationally at Insp level. I think a lot of work has to go into designing the right learning prior to it happening, but I have faith and as an idea it is well worth a try. I think the reservations can be overcome. b) The EQF was not my idea and I am not ‘driving’ anything. I did some of the background research and I believe that improving education is always a positive thing. I don’t believe in total graduate entry – which is good, as the College is also looking at non-graduate apprenticeships. And I also believe the service is full of awesome people without any transferable qualifications – and that is wrong, we should be accrediting those skills.