Police Recruitment and Political Integrity: Uplifting News?Apr 13, 2023
The arrival of April 2023 also heralds the Home Office's self-imposed deadline for recruiting an "additional" 20,000 police officers in England and Wales under the "Uplift" programme, which was announced in July 2019.
It has also brought some incredible political scenes in New York.
Back in 2019 (approaching a UK election) I wrote a piece on LinkedIn where I talked of a "A Common Sense, People-First Manifesto of Positivity for the Emergency Services" and, as the same protagonists were in the news, suggested that we:
"Make Integrity Great Again".
So, as the political and economic winds have continued to blow over the past 4 years, let's see how that manifesto has turned out.
In 2019, I suggested that there were 3 conveniently alliterative key strands for policing to consider, and tried to sum up what I thought the overriding philosophy should be for each:
Understand why people join, how they want to progress their career, what drives them – and support it. Harness their individuality instead of stifling it.
Proactively develop people by investing in their personal and professional development. They give it all for you – ask what you might give them in return.
Proactively equip people to leave successfully and positively by helping them understand the options available to them, giving them the confidence to enter new sectors and boldly sell their value.
On first glance, there are some very positive reports, like these press snapshots:
Overachieved recruitment targets! Amazing, right?
Firstly, let's genuinely applaud those who have managed to bring in so many new recruits in a competitive market, disrupted by the pandemic, against relentless negative media coverage, without much to offer financially and adapting to degree entry requirements. It is no mean feat.
However - just on the pure numbers - the devil is in the detail. It sounds a lot like GMP have got back to their strength of ten years ago. Is the population of Greater Manchester what it was ten years ago? If not, the level of capability isn't the same - before we get to experience and expertise (which we will).
There are also some worrying stories around how those numbers have been achieved:
Lowering entry standards to bump up numbers, if that is what has happened, is not only insulting to those who worked hard to meet previous standards, it's a sure-fire route to dismantling a good organisational culture - splintering the fundamental shared experience and bond created by striving together for a common goal. On the same theme, in some forces it has been possible to join without ever meeting (or being interviewed by) in-person. For a job that almost entirely depends on interpersonal ability, is that wise?
Cracks are appearing in the Home Office strategy to "professionalise" policing too, one major part of which was the degree entry requirement. For example:
Leaving aside the ideological debate for a second, one consequence of this will be a splintered recruitment landscape where neighbouring forces are making competing offers for talent. I live within roughly equal distance of 3 forces. If starting pay is equal, the role is the same but Hampshire won't ask me to spend my rest days getting a degree, why would I join one of their neighbours?
In my opinion that leads towards a US policing scenario - agencies spending more and more on lateral transfers (with bonuses) to compete for officers, but the overall pool of US law enforcement capability and resource reducing. In fact, we've seen fractures appearing between forces here too - notably the Met becoming unpopular with Home Counties forces for offering joining incentives and being perceived to be draining talent from surrounding areas.
Recruitment? Some good work for sure, but many questions to answer too.
I'm an additional officer, get me out of here
This is entirely anecdotal, but one thing that I have noticed since returning more focus to career coaching in 2023 has been how familiar the reasons police officers have for leaving feel. If anything, I'm talking to clients about the same issues from 2019 but deeper and more painful.
Another trend is the age and length of service of those people asking for help with an exit route. The majority are in the 5 to 15 years' service range, and the refrain is often simply "I've had enough". Job security worries during the pandemic may have kept many in policing, but I think we'll only see the resignations accelerate. I also see many people on PCDA or DHEP programmes - gaining or converting a degree to enter - deciding that it's an unsustainable approach and not worth a little more pay than working in Lidl.
Likewise those reaching the end of schemes like Police Now or direct entry detectives - the story I'm regularly told suggests that while those schemes may have lots of good points, coming off them is a little like stepping off a conveyor belt that isn't connected to the onward journey.
It's clear that huge effort and thought has gone into these pathways and I know many great people delivering University-based or in-force development. No criticism there. The danger is that we invest great sums in going out and finding talent, developing it and setting it up to deliver the organisational and cultural transformation we need... only to lose it after 3 years.
The genie is out of the bottle on opportunities elsewhere too. When I left the Met, not so long ago, it was seen as unusual to leave "early". Not any more. This critical mass of people having left successfully means the "grass isn't greener" voice is now quieter than the "but you could have X, Y, Z elsewhere".
Result: the system remains owned and directed by those who stay behind (with all its cultural implications), and frankly it seems increasingly clear that time-served promotion and seniority systems and face-fitting just don't work.
Of course, just as the headline number of recruits isn't as important as the skills, values and personalities of those recruits; retention is also about having mentors and role models for new recruits. If the mid-service bracket is the one being decimated by resignations, who are the subject matter experts? Who tutors the new recruit to transition their academic study into operational practice?
Retention: it isn't looking great.
Connecting the Loop
Much of this starts to feel like a very linear system in which high effort and investment at the front end yields diminishing returns. In my opinion, that's a result of ignoring the bigger organisational development questions over a long period of time.
The obvious comparison is the military, where resettlement is a funded experience that is seen as an inevitable part of the process, not a surprise. However, I think it's a simplistic comparison and policing shouldn't necessarily rush to replicate military structures and systems.
Instead, we need to be as vigourous, challenging and humble in addressing the environment these 20,000 people are entering. Who are the right leaders of change? What does a good employee experience look like? What training and development do they need? How do we tighten vetting, but also appreciate that the inherently traumatic nature of the work also impacts people over time?
Headlines might sell papers or win votes, but they do not create healthy societies. That happens in the detail and the willingness to change for the better.
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