Hitting the Target, Missing the Point

Policing is at a crossroads. At a time of unprecedented cuts and unparalleled reforms, the British police service faces enormous challenges, both financial and cultural. Police leaders and policy makers are searching for new approaches capable of achieving the outcomes that conventional management practices have so spectacularly failed to deliver.

So what’s the answer? Well, I argue that solutions lie in adopting a systemic approach to understanding how police forces operate and what drives behaviour at all levels. Having reviewed much of the existing literature on target-driven performance management, as well as through face-to-face interactions with several UK police forces and a questionnaire-based research programme intended to examine police performance management and operational practice, I have encountered common pitfalls (which are easy to avoid), as well as ground-breaking good practice, (which is easy to emulate – with due regard to local context, of course…) Furthermore, as a serving police officer I’ve also applied the theories myself, in real life and seen the benefits with my own eyes.

Central to the solutions I propose is the notion of understanding data in context – by doing so, police leaders can unleash a latent evidence base that provides a mandate to act (or not to act, as the case may be). Using the ‘right measures, measured right’ as I like to say, this ensures that operational activity remains focused on true purpose, rather than the latest management whims or de facto purposes, such as those which are inadvertently brought to the table by the application of numerical targets. I contend that numerical targets are the single most pernicious tool of modern-day performance management, and that their application has led to years of dysfunctional behaviour in policing and beyond. Experience has shown that organisations can become adept at ‘hitting the target whilst missing the point’, and the police service is no different.

But there’s more to fixing the system than simply removing targets. We must tackle such traditional blunt performance management tools as those infamous ‘up’ and ‘down’ arrows, the feared ‘red’ and ‘green’ performance descriptors, and the reviled ‘team vs team’ league tables, all of which cause unhealthy internalised competition, unnecessary bureaucracy, sub optimisation and ultimately a poorer service to the public. My research and experience draws strong parallels with existing literature that documents widespread dysfunctional behaviour caused by target-driven performance management regimes in public services.

My work also explores the consequences of risk aversion, waste and knee-jerk reactions in policing and the wider public sector, along with the behavioural outcomes associated with the dominant mode of management and system design. These dysfunctions tend to reoccur despite the good intentions of managers and the efforts of workers who are trying to do their best. My contention is that these dysfunctions are a symptom of the system, rather than a product of lazy or bad people.

I argue that we need to learn how to identify and capitalise on the opportunities that are already present within the system, such as using performance data to actually learn about performance, rather than inadvertently distort it. Only then can we understand the extent of existing capacity, identify areas for action, and work upon the system in a fashion that fosters continuous learning and improvement. By refocusing effort on doing the right thing and building a culture that values intrinsic motivation, professional judgment and frontline autonomy, there exists an opportunity to build a new model of policing – one which puts the service user at the heart of organisational focus.

My book, Intelligent Policing, explores the behavioural phenomena associated with conventional forms of police management practice, and presents practical alternatives which, I argue, have the potential to transform police organisational norms and service delivery.

Simon Guilfoyle is a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker, currently studying for a PhD at Warwick Business School. For details of publications and current engagements, see http://inspguilfoyle.wordpress.com/about/

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