by Chief Superintendent Gavin Thomas
President, Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales
One of the main purposes of policing is to uphold justice. So, it stands to reason that, in an organisation dedicated to justice, the culture of that organisation would, itself, be just, fair and impartial. Would you not agree?
Unfortunately, according to the results of a poll taken during my Association’s recent annual conference, it would seem that many of our members think the answer to that question is ‘no’ or, at best, ‘not always’.
When he was addressing our conference, author Matthew Syed argued that any organisation which is reliant for its success solely on having talented people within its ranks will not become one that is highly effective, learning or constantly improving.
In policing we aspire to be that highly effective and learning organisation constantly seeking those opportunities to improve and get better at protecting and serving the public.
Matthew posed, via our conference app, a series of questions about policing culture, so the members of the audience could submit their responses anonymously.
Just over 60% of respondents said they had a growth mindset ‘most of the time’ and even more thought that they learnt from their mistakes. But, when asked if they thought the Service had a ‘just’ culture, the response was split between ‘some of the time’ and ‘rarely’.
Now, I fully accept this was not a scientific study – and it certainly didn’t have any of the rigour expected by statisticians. However, it amplifies my concern that, as individuals, we have a real desire to learn from our mistakes but, as a Service, we are some way from having a culture that encourages our people to feel they can do just that.
This is not just about individuals having a desire to learn from their mistakes. There needs to be a desire by police forces to learn by their mistakes too. We all know that when things go wrong, it is not always down to one individual making a mistake, but rather a wider organisational or systemic failure – a matter of flawed policy or procedure, perhaps? If we don’t face up to this, and encourage police forces to learn from their mistakes, it will have an adverse impact on the service that we are able to provide to the public.
Our main strength, and undoubtedly the single biggest asset we have in policing, is that of our people. We are very much a ‘people organisation’. Without our people, there would simply be no service with which to keep the public safe.
So, I genuinely cannot understand how, in an organisation where the majority of our people want to learn from their mistakes, we have a culture where those selfsame people feel that they are not allowed to fail or, if they do, that they will be punished.
How can there be such a disconnect between the cultural approach taken by an organisation and the desire of the majority of its members?
Is there something different about policing that means the over-arching culture of the organisation suppresses that of if its individual members? Is it down to external influences? Is it the degree of accountability and scrutiny to which we are individually and collectively subjected? Or have we not grasped how large is the gap between our staff, police leaders and those to whom they are accountable.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully support that, as public servants, police officers must be accountable. I would not have it any other way. But, there is a difference between genuine, honestly made mistakes and acts of gross negligence. The tipping point from one to the other is neither well-balanced nor well-defined.
At conference I spoke about how we need to innovate at pace; and to inject a sense of entrepreneurial endeavour into both our thinking and our programmes of reform. This means giving our people permission to fail; permission to make mistakes and to learn – and to do so quickly.
It requires leaders at all levels in the service to say that it is OK to fail and to allow this to happen. If such an approach is to be successful, and a true learning culture is to pervade throughout policing, it will require our accountability mechanisms to be more flexible. There will also need to be real drive, commitment and courage at all levels in policing to make this happen – but it starts from the top.
I want to see a greater distinction being drawn between those behaviours that amount to gross negligence, or misconduct – and which rightly need to be addressed – and those genuine mistakes made by people who are trying their best to serve the public to the best of their ability and who just happened to get something wrong. Is this too much to expect?
Because police officers and police staff are human too; a fact that all too often seems to be forgotten by our processes and sadly, on occasions, by ourselves.