Aspiring to Quality Service in policing

This blog was originally posted in June 2012

In his address to the International Policing and Exhibition conference (IPEC) 1991 Sir John Woodcock stated that “the history of the [police] service shows that about every thirty or forty years the police service gets out of step with what the public now want from it”.  Sir John goes on to explain that he believed that in 1991 the police were in one of those periods where the police were providing a service that was at odds with the desires of the public.  The view of Sir John, whose speech centred on quality service in policing, was supported by a large scale national survey called the Operational Policing Review (OPR, 1991).  

The OPR identified three main problems that could be described as policing arrogance that typified the dissonance between the police and the public.  First, the police were setting their own priorities and standards in terms of service delivery and effectiveness.  A long standing notion is that the type of quality of service delivered by the police is determined by the police rather than being customer or citizen led.  This paternalistic attitude by some police managers offered substantial resistance to the ideas of a customer-generated definition of quality of service and was predicated on the concept that the police know best what the customer needs.  Second, there was no verification that ‘customer’ expectations were being met and third, the police were not providing a consistent standard of fairness, courtesy and sensitivity in service delivery.

What followed was a focus on improving the quality of service that the police delivered to the public.  As a young police inspector in the early 1990s I can recall being trained as an assessor in what was then called the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) process and undertaking a series of reviews in my division.  I had no idea why we were undertaking this process, but it seemed like an opportunity to learn a new skill that may come in handy one day. Indeed I can recall one Superintendent advising me that when I attended my promotion board, if I did not mention EFQM in every sentence then I would have no chance of passing.

My naivete to what was happening at a strategic level nationally in relation to quality service was reawakened when I started my research for my doctorate into police reform related to quality service.  My research showed that in the early 1990s there was a strong group of police leaders who were driving change in policing and focusing on standards of service delivery.  Amongst those leaders were Sir John Woodcock as Chief HMIC, John Hirst who was the Chief Constable of Leicester and Sir Charles Pollard who was the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police.  Together they, along with other colleagues, formed the Quality Service Committee that strove to encourage police forces to examine the standard of service that they deliver.  

The words of Sir John were quite prophetic when applied the introduction of the Citizen Focus agenda a decade or so later.  Sir John stated that “the public needs a service that answers their needs, one which works to an ethic of openness and consultation, one which sets itself ever higher standards of service, one which measures that standard and announces the results, one which reaches out to the most marginalised in society which is much more concerned with community relations than public relations.” this sentence alone could be the subject of a dissertation covering Panopticism, Discipline of Power, social contract and police legitimacy.  It is a wonderful sentence that describes  an aspiration for policing that I believe exists today.

Those champions of quality in policing ultimately lost their battle to embed quality in service in policing as government reform of policing through Sheehy and Posen caused the service to fight battles on a different front, but perhaps their greatest achievement was to sow a seed that has been blossoming for the last five or six years.

I was privileged to lead the citizen focus charge within  large Metropolitan police force under the New Labour government, and yes, they did swamp us with performance targets and yes that was our primary focus, but we achieved a great deal along the way, not least educating the staff in the value of excellence in service delivery and understanding the needs of victims and witnesses.  But in hindsight maybe we had it easy.  We had a government who supported the delivery of citizen focus by investing in national structures and a network of senior officers at ACPO level.  At one point I counted five ACPO officers whom all played a key part in the citizen focus agenda on a national scale, including three Chief Constables.  

However, in a sense of history repeating itself the Coalition government withdrew all targets and structures that supported the citizen focus agenda and instructed forces to concentrate on a solitary performance target of  reducing crime. So one might think that we are going back to the days of the OPR and the opening comments of Sir John whereby police arrogance becomes the order of the day and the police fail to listen to what communities are saying about them.  But there is a glimmer of hope.

The seeds that I mentioned earlier are still flowering in certain areas and the drive to deliver the police mission of reducing crime through a style that emphasises quality still exists.  Amongst those that I have  recently interviewed I found two assistant chief constables Ruth Purdie of Cheshire Police and Garry Shewan of Greater Manchester Police who not only understood the value of quality service, but are driving quality in all levels of the service not just front line delivery.  Our discussions were exciting as both leaders demonstrated their technical, human and conceptual skills and exhibited charismatic leadership behaviours that can only lead to success.

There were others.  Three chief constables that I interviewed demonstrated their personal commitment by touring their force and speaking in person to groups of people to ensure that the message is given the gravitas that it deserves.  

In closing his speech Sir John stated “The public not only expect, but now demand a culture within the police service that insists that all officers, not just some, not just the majority, but all officers measure up to the requirements of the customer, when and how he or she needs it and not when or how the service feels like delivering it, whether he or she is a victim, accused or just asking the time.”

Lofty aspirations, but if our current police leaders match the commitment of Garry and Ruth, then maybe the police will manage to ensure that quality service in policing becomes  the norm in each and every case.

Published by thebluelocust

Former police superintendent. Current university lecturer, police trainer and Director of Blue Locust Network Ltd

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