The process of improving process…

“A perfection of means, and a confusion of aims seems to be our main problem.” Einstein

Process has been a special beau of the Police since I joined over 10 years ago. It has been conjoined in matrimony with the ever-present spectre of New Public Management since I can remember. What is New Public Management (NPM) I hear you ask? Well it may be better to have a look here for the scholarly run down: http://www.christopherhood.net/pdfs/npm_encyclopedia_entry.pdf or here if you are a Wikipedia lover: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_public_management The basic features involve separating departments/functions into silos and introducing competition, measurement, and performance to improve ‘efficiency.’

Sounds familiar? It should. You will have seen NPM in the benefits sector, healthcare, policing, education… the list goes on. Do you ever wonder why departments don’t speak to each other within the public services? It is because they haven’t been designed to… Luckily, things are on-the-up in this area and there are signs of improvement.

So, it would stand to reason wouldn’t it, that a lot of the processes that we have are based on small areas of public service, measuring small areas of public service. These processes are often insular; they are focused inwards and work to improve micro areas within the department or to further the purpose of only that department.

That was a mouthful wasn’t it? Let me put into some context…

A particular area of the service becomes a priority. This can happen because of public pressure, a review, a change process, or because someone wants it to become one. So if home burglaries became a priority, what would NPM do about it?

Well, the first thing that would usually happen is a target would be introduced. This target would be put in place to bring about ‘efficiency,’ drive activity, and allow staff to aspire towards achievement in the workplace, or that is how it would be sold. The next thing would be introduction of tight processes, with a catalogue of checks and balances. This will mean rigorous monitoring of data, and lots of compliance.

Skip a step in the process and you will likely be spoken to at the very least, make a mistake by missing a step and usually – over time – there would be issues around discipline. This means that error/anomaly/difference will be ironed out and staff will maintain ‘high’ levels of investigatory standards at all times. Managers think that they are doing the right thing by observing their silos, gateway checks, and process, and believe that efficiency comes as a result of it.

Except it doesn’t work like that. Why? Because burglars do not just burgle houses. Burglaries are all different. Cops are not robots. And somewhere amidst all this, is the victim.

Following steps 1-10 will not produce a high quality of investigation. A well trained Police Officer with good training and empathy will provide a high quality of investigation. Will all those steps be appropriate for every investigation? Obviously not. But will cops have to do them anyway to maintain ‘quality?’ Absolutely. What does this produce? Well it produces waste, and lots of it.

It produces waste for the victim, waste for the cop, and lots of waste for the organisation.

From a narrative perspective, what story does it tell the people involved in the process?

  • Cop: You are not capable of conducting a high quality investigation yourself, we have to tell you how to do it, and if you screw up we will be having words. Followers of the process know their job is done when the steps are complete. Numbers and ticks are VERY important, but my individual skill/opinion is not.
  • Organisation: We highly value the correct administration and compliance of our investigations because we believe that if you follow this process, it will assist us to hit our targets. Targets are good because hitting them means we are providing a better service for our victims. There is an emphasis on conformance, and there is a belief that this brings performance.
  • Victims: The police officer that attended seemed to know what they are doing, they had certain steps to go through but they didn’t listen when I told them about how I was feeling. I’m having issues with neighbours across the road and I needed time and reassurance. They said they would ring me in a week, and then again in a month, I wanted them to ring me tomorrow…
  • Supervision: Your Police Officers are good if they can follow process and administrate properly. They are great with their victims as I know they contact them when the process tells them to. The charts say performance is improving so my staff must be doing a good job.

Although simplified, there are so many problems discussed in these last four points that I can’t do justice to them all. Putting people in process related boxes does nothing for bespoke policing and it dumbs down the officer’s creativity and autonomy. It manages people through numbers and tick boxes, and as we all know, people are not – and never have been – numbers or tick boxes.

Now this discussion is missing one very large point. The processes and targets were brought in because overall, the efficiency of the police and other public services was very poor. They were seen as expensive dinosaurs in desperate need of an overhaul. NPM did just that, and process and practices were brought in that did make the profession tighter, more focussed, and it certainly got people working harder.

Now however, is the time to work smarter. The austerity is biting, and resources are becoming scarce. The steps in those processes that represent waste must be cut out from the bottom up and the top down. The only important question here is which steps are waste, and which steps have lots of value?

How do we answer that question? You guessed it; research. Which of those steps that we do daily generate waste, and which locate offenders? Let’s stop focussing on those reactive steps that follow a burglary, and instead look at the ones that follow a successful detection. Where did that detection come from? What methods are we using that are catching and convicting offenders? Can we improve and focus these steps?

Examples would be:

  • Do a large number of detections happen following House to House enquiries?
  • Do a large number of detections happen through CCTV enquiries?
  • Are fingerprints bringing about successful convictions? Where were they found and who lifted them?
  • Is entry and exit route research a contributing factor to conviction?
  • And the real big questions, is convicting a burglar really the way forward? Are there better ways of dealing with them? What is a success for the victim, and is it different to what the cops would say was a success?

I could hazard guesses at the answers to these questions, but I don’t want to do that as that is how many of the processes were brought into being in the first place. Evaluation of work flow, processes, and ‘successful’ outcomes should happen regularly as a matter of course. This means a solid partnership and connection with academia. Society is changing all the time, and as a result, continual improvement should not be a department that drops in and out of particular areas in the service, it needs to be a pillar of a public service’s operations.

Once the data has been collected, evaluated and conclusions have been drawn, this needs to be merged and connected with professional opinion. It would be nice if it was discussed with victims and offenders too. Being transparent is something that public services often do badly, why not open the whole process from the start? Invite opinion, discuss progress with the workforce and the public through social media? There could be a far greater understanding at the end when conclusions are drawn. Down the line, this could result in Policing being something that police do with the public, instead of doing it to them…

So, there you have it, a whistle stop tour through NPM in public services. In a nutshell, let’s look for some meaning in our process. If it isn’t there, don’t do it. Let’s find the meaning with good research and evidence our decisions when we make them with good professional judgement. Lastly, let’s talk about it.

It’s no use being a big secret is it?

If you want to read a little more on NPM, check out Christopher Hood’s writings on it. They are pretty scathing. Also, a lot of the methods I discuss here are actually rooted in Systems Thinking theory. Read up on a man named Deming, and if you are a cop and interested in dialogue like this, check out @SimonJGuilfoyle ‘s book; Intelligent Policing. The link is here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Intelligent-Policing-Thinking-Conventional-Management-ebook/dp/B00C1JUN5A

I work in a force where Evidence Based Policing is becoming daily business. I hope to bring a few examples through as case studies in forthcoming blogs; watch this space.

Thanks to my ever-helpful proof readers – you are all awesome. 🙂