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OPINION:

Going off script: Encouraging a policing environment that allows innovation

Emma Williams

Do scripts - and other similar prescriptive frameworks - undermine police officers' ability to think for themselves? Emma Williams of Canterbury Christ Church University argues that officers need to be able to be human, and to make mistakes, and flags up CCCU's June conference on barriers to change.

Last week the Canterbury Centre for Police Research hosted a debate on policing and mental health.

The debate covered issues relating to both the way the police deal with individuals who are experiencing mental ill health and mental health issues in policing.

It was a very successful evening and I would like to say a huge thanks to all of those that assisted in its success, particularly as it was the evening following the atrocities in Manchester. This goes out to our staff, those that attended, and the speakers. 

The debate covered issues relating to both the way the police deal with individuals who are experiencing mental ill health and mental health issues in policing.

It was very easy to analyse the information being presented and make links between the two, and also the links to many areas of policing where officers can feel threatened, witness horrifying events, and feel powerless to deal with them fully effectively.

The statistics revealed, from a survey completed by Mind charity, reinforced the significant numbers of officers who disclosed their suffering of mental ill health or stress by the Police Federation England and Wales and Police Dependant Trust surveys.

It was a very insightful evening and, if you would like more details specifically on Michael Brown’s input, he has published a great blog on his site. 

Outputs of assistance

This article isn’t specifically about the debate content provided that night, but is partly a response to one simple issue mentioned in the paper delivered by the Mind representative. It has really resonated and stayed with me.

Human reaction is actually fundamental not only for ensuring ‘real’ and contextual care and welfare, but also for the benefit of learning, trying new ways of working and being innovative.

There was talk about the potential development of a script for officers and call handlers to use when they are faced with someone with mental health issues.

Prescriptive aids for officers delivered out of context concern me, as most of you already know.

Whilst offering a framework, perhaps, they can deskill, negate a sense of professional self-identity, promote clone-like approaches to extremely complex issues and remove the human element to just dealing with people properly.

Such ‘outputs of assistance’, based usually on research findings (well, we hope for reasons of evidence-based practice) for officers and staff must always be delivered and implemented with the proviso that human care and professional experience is allowed for.

Indeed, more than that, human reaction is actually fundamental not only for ensuring ‘real’ and contextual care and welfare, but also for the benefit of learning, trying new ways of working and being innovative.

Recently, at the Society of Evidence Based Policing, a major theme was the need to learn from failures being as important as learning from success.

Relaying scripts can limit both, and yet allowing space for officers to try new ideas and ways of being in these situations is exactly what is needed.

Such allowance and critically, trust, enhances officers commitment to the organisation and promotes a sense of leadership that supports its staff to do the right thing. Ethically this may be more beneficial than operating off a script. 

Blame

Not one officer I know wants to be a clone, unable to go off script, and forced to reel off the same output in any given situation.

Therefore I was relieved by the mention of humanity by Mind, and I hope that if such scripts enter the policing sphere this is stressed.

BUT there is another key issue here that was raised by Michael Brown; and that was about the risk to the officer and attached blame if something goes wrong.

This is something that comes up time and time again when you speak to practitioners about being allowed to go off script, be curious (as Roger Pegram talks about regularly) and use innovation. 

There are a number of things that are happening in policing at the moment to try to promote wider thinking, and much of this is embodied in the College of Policing’s PEQF through the delivery of qualifications in policing, so even the idea of neat scripts seems threatening to the concept of thinking, analysis and new ideas. 

Superb speakers

In June we hold our second annual conference at CCPR which will explore barriers to change and how to encourage an environment that accepts learning and innovation.

Unless you have the buy-in, and the voices involved within the organisation, those changes are highly unlikely to really have an impact or indeed, be considered legitimate by employees themselves.

We are exceptionally lucky to have such superb speakers coming to talk and, as a core part of our objective as a centre, we have a great mix of academics and practitioners attending and presenting over the two days.

Last year’s event was fantastic and we hope to create a similar event in June. 

The key theme arising from all of the papers concerns the people. Communicating to them, listening to them and engaging with them – the humans.

That is so much more important than changing processes, structures and things that legitimise the organisation to the outside world.

Unless you have the buy-in, and the voices involved within the organisation, those changes are highly unlikely to really have an impact or indeed, be considered legitimate by employees themselves.

I could rant on about this for ever as I am entirely embedded in this conversation for my own research, but I feel excited that we can raise these issues, if only to a few, in June. 

Giving people scripts, and expecting the same responses and actions to be applied to certain events and contexts, can create social contagion where a particular type of behaviour is perpetuated, culture is reconstructed time and time again and change remains limited in any real sense. 

Interview robots

A recent poll designed and distributed by Police Promotion on Twitter asked officers why they felt they could not be themselves during an interview process and why they felt they turned into an interview robot.

Neil James from the organisation, that offers training around promotion processes, told me that the response they had was higher than for any other twitter poll they had completed.

Most interesting in this debate was that 61% of the 980 officers that responded said that the reason was because they felt it was expected of them.

Comments such as “you have to say what they want to hear” and “difference is unwelcome and disruptive thinking is to be slapped down” don’t really resonate with a place that it ready for difference, lateral thinking and curiousness. 

As an aside this is an excellent example of how social media can reveal voice. Ian Hesketh and I have advocated the use of social media channels for research probing for a while and this is a classic example of how it could be used – particularly around a subject that maybe challenging for people to discuss openly in their force. 

Raising conversation

I am excited by the debate that is coming in June. Opening up the questions about why change is stilted is critical at a time when change is not only required but also being enforced in some areas.

The papers we have range from ideas about listening to practitioners and using surveys from Les Graham, encouraging evidence-based practice from Rob Briner, leading though change from Andy Rhodes, and many many more.

We hope the conference will raise conversation and questions about what the reality is at the current time for those doing the job. Please tweet away and spread the debate around to those not coming.

There are a lot of evidenced examples about the perceptions of officers and indeed the inhibitors of innovation – scripts being one example of this. 

The human experience is the most important part of this process. We must always value the assets – the staff – and listen to them if we really are serious about change.

Change of practice, change of culture and more critically of behaviour is likely to be surface level without this. 

Learning from failure

Organisational change can look sufficient to the outside world and change programmes can help legitimise failings to the outside world.

However, it is ironic that when we experience failed change programmes we don’t learn from the reasons why!

I think researchers and academics have a role in making this better. We need to consider the people in our research too (as I have written about).

Evidence to learn from comes from voice too. Understanding the impact of something is useless unless we learn from what didn’t or conversely didn’t make it effective. 

So the human is applicable to this entire conversation. Doing the job, trying new ways of working, further testing ideas to see if they work in context and asking those involved what they need to make it a success.

Without pre-emptying the conference debates I suspect that it might mainly feature people, the removal of blame and the promotion of a culture that doesn’t advocate clones. 

Please get involved in the debate – follow #CCCUConf17 

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