Come back to what you know: Is policing’s latest plan a viable retention strategy?

Police car with flashing blue lights

The new Conservative Party leadership seems to think policing might be about numbers, after all.

Hot on the heels of Boris Johnson’s headline-grabbing announcement of 20,000 “extra” police officers came the suggestion that offering those completing thirty years’ service the chance to stay (or come back) might ease the pressure. So far, it’s fair to say the reaction from those eligible has ranged from lukewarm to outright ridicule. In this article, I want to look at how we arrived at this point, whether this is a viable solution and what the alternatives might be – looking at the wider issues of recruitment, retention and resettlement.

However you look at it, policing has some serious issues with fundamental supply and demand. Demand might not have been on the table in last year’s Home Office Front Line Review, but it is the inescapable driver of most structural issues and day-to-day stressors across the emergency services in my opinion. There are fewer people doing the same, or more, work. That is not a sustainable model, and the “extra” capacity has been filled largely by goodwill – those same people staying late, working their rest days, taking on additional roles… all at significant cost to their own wellbeing, prospects and quality of life.

Looking more closely at this latest retention scheme, those with Metropolitan Police backgrounds will recognise it from recent memory as “30+”. The theory being that those eligible for retirement choose not to leave, instead taking their lump sum but continuing to take a salary in lieu of their monthly pension. To my mind, this is the apparent positive theory:

  • More hands on deck to cope with huge demand right now. Numbers, numbers, numbers.

  • Retaining experience and skill that can be used not only to drive operational performance but also to train and mentor the next generation

  • Forces retain a direct connection to these people, rather than having to employ (and pay) external agencies to find the same people and bring them back on short-term contracts

All of those come with some associated concerns, as I see it.

  • Is it truly financially viable/beneficial/attractive for those individuals?

  • Are we treating the cause here, or simply applying a sticking plaster to a symptom?

  • If 30+ wasn’t a success before, why should it be now?

  • What of the exodus of mid-service skill and experience?

  • Will this become simply a political box checked?

  • Are people’s reasons for leaving purely financial?

  • Will this assuage the wider issues faced by those approaching retirement?

I have spent the past 4 years working daily with people leaving the police, wanting to leave the police and suffering the effects of having left the police without adequate support or preparation. Indeed, I was one such person when I left early through exasperated resignation. My findings may well be often anecdotal, but they are drawn from a huge and nationally replicated sample, so I feel confident in seeing them as stronger than speculation and more robust than assumption.

The pension is undoubtedly a huge traditional factor in people choosing policing as a career. For many of those now eligible to retire – the 30-year mark was the target. There are two important things to note here. Firstly, many of those people have always planned to leave and simply have no interest in staying. Secondly, they represent what around 1988-91 were some of the largest intakes seen in police recruitment – meaning a wave of imminent retirements has appeared in view of those navigating the good ship UK Policing. In the past this hasn’t mattered so much as, to stretch my nautical metaphor to breaking point, there have been consistent waves of officers and staff behind them, providing a predictable and consistent tide of people appearing in promotion/selection processes each year and passing down skills and experience along the way.

However, in recent years, those leaving have been drawn increasingly from the mid-service bracket (anywhere from 5 to 25 years’ service). Not only is this hugely costly – the whole 30-year career model only makes financial sense if people complete it and “repay” the investment in their recruitment and training – but it drains corporate memory, capability and progress. Keeping experience seems futile without anyone to pass it onto. Equally, today’s thirty-year officer is 2010’s twenty-one-year officer – bringing raw personal experience of being undervalued, overworked and unappreciated. Are they a likely advocate for staying on the ship, or one of the first names down for a spot on the lifeboats?

We can’t forget that we’re talking about people. People who have given so much and not always received much in kind. This chart (with thanks to Alan Wright) shows that a scheme targeting those with 30 years’ service is aiming at a pretty small section – and shows that the focus has been on recruitment over retention. If we can’t retain those recruits past 5 to 10 years, where is the future capability?

In my attempts to convince senior police leaders that investing in what you already have as well as in new people from day one is a wise move, I’ve often been faced with variations on a response of:

“If people still want to join, it can’t be so bad”


“Why would I want to spend money on helping people leave”

Well, the same Telegraph article that announces the retention scheme also quotes “a study by job website Indeed, which found jobseeker interest in working for the police has fallen by a fifth in the past two years, and plunged by a quarter in the last six months”.

Suddenly, what was already a nonsensical approach of pouring water into a bucket riddled with holes now encounters a water shortage.

Would a professional football club shy away from offering facilities, training, physios, nutrition, video analysts and so on just in case their players became good enough to attract interest from other clubs? Then in the last week of their contract, offer them a reworked version of bonuses owed? Or, would they offer the best possible in all those fields knowing that performance will increase, advocacy of “a great place to play” will increase… and so on. I was lucky enough to learn about professional rugby’s approach recently: players have “non-rugby” activity specified in their contracts to prepare them for life outside, which has been shown to increase their on-field performance, not to mention a fundamental duty of care for putting their health at risk. Sound familiar?

I referred to my regular dealings with exasperated, trapped, burnt out police personnel. Although money is always a factor, as prominent in these discussions are personal motivators like fulfilment, feeling valued, work/life balance, reward, positive workplace culture and many more. These reasons won’t be overcome with last-minute offers to stay or pleas to come back. These are the reasons people like me leave policing at increasingly early stages and in increasingly high numbers, as seen here:

People with 30 years in the police, through no fault of their own, are often institutionalised. They aren’t aware of what else exists in the world of work, where their skills might be valued – even what they might truly want to do, because no-one has ever asked them. I wonder if a retention scheme like this preys on some of these elements and (whether consciously or not) perpetuates a myth that they can’t do anything else. Even at 5 years’ service, I clearly remember the chorus of “you can’t just leave” and “what else will you do?”. This is why I’m also uneasy about the industry of “civilian investigators” and so on that has sprung up to backfill policing roles – if people really understood their value and had been developed throughout their career (on a personal as well as professional level), would they go back on low pay, short-term contracts and to an environment that often made them unhappy/unwell?

So far, so downbeat. Is it all doom and gloom?

It doesn’t have to be, but we must face a few uncomfortable truths and commit to sustained investment in doing the right things. People don’t want to stay. People don’t want to join. Those already “in” are looking to leave. The direction of work and society is not toward 30-year careers.

All those things are threats, but they also bring opportunities. We must stop seeing recruitment, retention and resettlement as existing in three separate galaxies. They are intrinsically linked, because they are key pillars of a healthy organisation. They all involve understanding and valuing people as individuals from day one – allowing them to grow and not being afraid of them wanting to one day leave. The College of Policing wants people to be able to leave and return with new skills – fine in theory, but again we have to create an environment people want to come back to. Policing should always have a natural advantage over other industries in attracting great people – people who see it as a vocation and want to help others. People who’ve always wanted to do it. The right kind of people. What they need is to be supported throughout their service, encouraged to maximise their abilities, valued and equipped for the day when they do move on so that they do so as advocates. This isn’t impossible – people like me have the will and the expertise to make it happen and I refuse to believe that the game is up – but what it does require is the sustained investment and support at the highest levels that has been sorely lacking for a decade.