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Skills for Justice: Building a modern police service fit for tomorrow starts with harnessing the lived experience of the workforce today

Mike Cunningham

Involved in policing for over 30 years, the end of 2020 marked Mike Cunningham’s departure from his pivotal role as Chief Executive of the College of Policing (CoP). This year, continuing on his mission to drive change across the sector, Mike has joined Skills for Justice as an associate; here he talks with Toby Lindsay, Principal Consultant for Leadership, Management and Organisation Development (OD), about the skills he deems essential to the future of policing.

Mike (MC) said: “Prior to my role at the CoP, as chief constable of Staffordshire Police and then as HM Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, convinced me more than ever that we need to invest completely in the workforce if policing, under the wider justice system, is going to be effective. Being a senior leader is not for the faint hearted, it’s a tricky job, so if I can use my experience to support people in any way, then I really want to do more of in the forthcoming months and years.”

During your time at the College, you were instrumental in implementing new training for police officers and instigating significant changes to the way the organisation supports UK police leadership development, the latter culminating in the delivery of the insightful report ‘Policing in England and Wales: Future Operating Environment 2040’ (FOE 2040). This resource is extremely significant to helping police leaders develop their plans, strategies, and capabilities, based on understanding the potential challenges and opportunities for policing over the next twenty years.

I believe the continuous professional development of officers and staff in policing is a long way from where it needs to be, and there are many reasons for that.”

Mike Cunningham QPM

MC: “I’m a big believer in assessing future requirements. The work we did at the CoP on the FOE 2040 is very important to helping people assess how they are developing their organisation. If you’re going to develop organisations properly, then I think it has to be predicated on understanding what the future holds. So that’s an area I hope I can offer something to the work you do at Skills for Justice.”

We are excited to be benefitting from your broad sector knowledge. Applying your valuable insight to helping us nurture the skills development police leaders currently need, I believe we really can help forces ensure the future of policing starts now.

MC: “I believe the continuous professional development of officers and staff in policing is a long way from where it needs to be, and there are many reasons for that. But what I do know, is that policing and other law enforcement agencies are working in a very fast moving world, and it is incumbent upon these justice sector professionals to hone their skills if they are to be effective on behalf of the communities they serve. At Skills for Justice, you seek to equip our policing people in that way, with the skills, workforce development and expertise a modern service need. So, I feel it is a very good fit for me.”

Every day in policing brings new challenges and recent times have shown just how tirelessly officers, staff and volunteers work to keep people safe, balancing extensive knowledge with swift decision-making and empathy towards the public to deliver a rapid and effective response. Yet, as the report outlines, these challenges continue to evolve in complexity, so where do you think we begin in ensuring our future service is adept to meeting these ongoing tests it will face?

MC: “I think we’re bringing in really talented people into policing and into the wider framework of the justice sector. When I reflect on myself joining the police service thirty years ago, if you were a six-foot tall bloke who played rugby, then you had a good chance of getting in. Empathy, compassion, sensitivity, intelligence, these were not things that were really tested in the way they are now. I’m convinced we’re now getting very high-quality people, not just into front-line policing but across different parts of our workforce. I’m constantly seeing people who are well trained and very serious about their own professional development and the job of leaders in the future.

“Recruitment and OD has come a long way in helping support the workforce as they find their way through the service and face the challenges of the next generation, which are very different to the ones that I encountered. Nevertheless, we really need to make sure that new recruits, as well as those who have been in policing for some time, remain current and maintain the edge they need. Because one thing we know for sure is that people who seek to subvert the law remain current, finding new ways of using new technology and new ways of approaching vulnerability and victims. Policing needs to retain the advantage of staying ahead of them if we are to fully protect people, and ultimately bring people to justice.”

Absolutely. For the sector to adapt and grow for the future, leadership development and OD which is grounded in the reality of modern policing and crime prevention is a key component to making this aspiration a reality. How do you see police leaders today understanding this vital role that OD plays in the five future challenges outlined, as needing attention now, in the FOE 2040?

MC: “The term ‘OD’ certainly seems to mean different things to different people sometimes. Yet at the end of the day, organisations have to develop, move on, and improve, and you do that by developing people. But also, you do it by thinking about the way the organisation works: how it functions, how decisions are made, how it interconnects with other organisations, and how it’s enabled through technology, which is vital to ensuring that organisations remain fleet of foot. They have to be, as the world is very, very fast moving. We all know that, and organisations don’t stand still. They either improve or deteriorate and I think our role is to help organisations improve. Crucially, none of this can really be done without a clearer understanding of what the future holds.”

Leadership is a great privilege, but it’s also a big challenge. If we’re going to equip people to be effective leaders, then we need to do that deliberately and thoughtfully.”

Mike Cunningham QPM

To help address this vast range of possibilities the future may hold, we think it is imperative police leaders are given the adequate time and space for frank discussion, reflection and the sharing of ideas learned from lived experience. With all your years in policing, your contribution to these conversations is incredibly valuable, and we are thrilled to have you on board.

MC: “I am really passionate about contributing my thoughts and experience around the value of leadership development. By that I mean leaders at every organisational level, not just people in the most senior positions. Leadership is a great privilege, but it’s also a big challenge. If we’re going to equip people to be effective leaders, then we need to do that deliberately and thoughtfully.  

“I sit on the advisory body for the National Leadership Centre which supports the development of the top leaders across the country, so I know leadership development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It has to happen where people are exposed to leaders across organisations and across sectors, to have a full value of the experience. I want to contribute towards helping leaders develop, as well as in developing staff who don’t seek leadership roles but have the skills the public they serve requires.”

The FOE 2040 suggests that the collaborative exploration of what policing might need to do now to prepare for a range of possible future outcomes may be done within policing itself, but also that what will become even more important is doing so across organisational boundaries. Have you seen collaboration with other sector improving within policing over your time?

MC: “Yes, it has, and I think that’s because for organisations to be effective people realise, they have to connect and collaborate. Most problems are multifaceted. The problems that organisations face, whether it’s a health issue, or a community safety issue, there are normally other factors. Take alcohol as a problem for example. We know there are health issues associated with it, but it also raises community safety concerns around issues connected to lifestyle and mental health. These are also connected to poverty and deprivation.

“If you don’t approach a multifaceted problem with a multifaceted solution, you are not going to solve it, and a one dimensional approach to problem solving rarely works. So, I think it’s increasingly recognised, that organisations have to collaborate. There’s a massive opportunity for Skills for Justice to bring different sectors together to talk and start the communication, and help people develop together, and share skills and experiences.”

That is the reason our new ‘Police and Crime Prevention OD and Change Practitioner Programme’ next month has been designed specifically to help today’s police leaders establish these very networks. It gives them the space and access to these vital conversations and relationships, and room for collaborative strategy and capability development.

We work in a time where the imperative is to act now, and fast. Under incredible pressures, the challenges our police leaders are faced with are on the rise daily, with no better example than the last twelve months. Looking into the future, within the context of the pandemic restrictions starting to lift, Black Lives Matter, Sarah Everard and the #metoo movement, and most recently the unrest around the right to protest, where do you see policing’s skills and development needs headed for the rest of 2021 and beyond?

MC: “The last year really has been unprecedented. The first thing to say is that some of these challenges we could have actually seen coming. And this all goes back to the importance of futures work. The global pandemic has been forecast for some time and issues regarding inequality, particularly regarding race for example, we have been living with. These are all issues we could have predicted with some confidence, for some time. I think this vitally requires us to think about how we better prepare. How do we better deal with things now, so they don’t become more problematic in the future? How do we deal with injustices in our society, especially when people have been telling us about it for too long?

“The reason this is so important for policing, is that for the British policing model to work, the public have to have confidence in the services that are provided for them. If these services are to be effective, they have to be able to scrutinize and question. They have to be able to challenge and complain. This transparency should lead to enhanced confidence.

I think the best people, the best leaders and the most effective practitioners are people who constantly remain curious, constantly wanting to stay fresh.”

Mike Cunningham QPM

“So, one of the vital things we need to be thinking about, is how we use this foresight of what might happen in the future to better prepare now. Secondly, how do we develop the leaders with that openness to scrutiny, challenge and questioning? Those who try and search for this sort of transparency and accountability in their people. And thirdly, going back to collaboration, how do we bring organisations together to think about these issues, not just as silo organisations, but to look at the problem together? And then work out who best needs to be around the table.”

The voice of the change practitioner in policing and their ability to influence and convene these vital conversations to happen in their organisations now really is the key in making the important work of change be most effective in the future. Having you on board with us, sharing so passionately in our belief that building a modern police service fit for tomorrow starts with harnessing the lived experience of the workforce today, I’m truly excited to facilitate these conversations.

MC: “I think the best people, the best leaders and the most effective practitioners are people who constantly remain curious, constantly wanting to stay fresh. I think one of the roles of organisations like yourselves at Skills for Justice is how we can keep individuals and organisations on the front and ahead of their game, and I am looking forward to being a part of these discussions.”

The future of policing starts now. Join us to continue this conversation and book your place today to be part of our new ‘Police and Crime Prevention OD and Change Practitioner Programme’.

Mike Cunningham QPM is a former senior British Police officer and was Chief Executive of the College of Policing from 2018-2020. Mike joined Lancashire Constabulary in 1987 and after completing the police Strategic Command Course in 2005, he became Assistant Chief Constable, taking responsibility for operational policing. He later was Chief Constable of Staffordshire Police from September 2009-2014. In 2014, he was appointed Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and bestowed the award of Honorary Doctor by Staffordshire University in recognition of his significant contribution to policing and law and order.


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