Promotion barriers to and at chief officer level – findings from my own research

Blog post

Promotion barriers to and at chief officer level – findings from my own research

During 2013 and 2014 I worked with colleagues from Birkbeck College and University College London on a study of chief officer misconduct in policing that was commissioned by the College of Policing. Concerns about promotion processes came up repeatedly and the findings of the research on chief officer appointments published yesterday by the College come as no surprise.

During the chief officer misconduct research, and subsequently, I heard officers describe a wide range of barriers to promotion, all of which were shared with the appropriate bodies more than 18 months ago. I am publishing them here both to add weight to the evidence base, but also because while many are reflected in the College research, there are some that seem to add to their analysis.

On the transition to chief officer level I have heard concerns raised about:

  • The need to obtain chief constable approval to apply for the senior Police National Assessment Centre (PNAC), which relates to issues of valuing difference and so on, and the provision by some but not all chief constables of PNAC coaching.
  • Potential candidates ‘de-selecting’ themselves because of their perception (or having been repeatedly told/insinuated) that they are ‘too different’; related to which are perceptions about the homogeneity of existing chief officer teams, the perceived need to have a ‘face that fits’ and so on.
  • Concerns about job insecurity with the transition to contractual employment, particularly for those potential chief officer candidates who are relatively early in their service (eg around 15 years or so).
  • Related to the changing employment terms, a significant tax liability that has to be met on the transition to chief officer, which I am told can be in the order of £60-70,000 or more in one go.
  • Caring responsibilities, including in relation to the demands of the Strategic Command Course (SCC) (now ameliorated to a degree with a change to the delivery of the SCC, which is no longer residential over such a long period as was the case a few years ago).

More broadly I have heard about issues relating to:

  • The need for geographical mobility, although this was slightly lessened by the change in 2012 apparently opposed by the police service so that applicants for chief constable positions no longer need have worked as a chief officer in a different force for two years. It has been suggested to me that potential candidates are increasingly prioritising quality of life over promotion.
  • The perception that there is often already a ‘name on the door’, with officers citing the experience of being encouraged to apply (and declining to do so) for jobs where they felt there was a clear preferred candidate and they were being asked to make up the numbers (in some cases in the past, with the promise of being looked on favourably for other positions); also PCCs clearly identifying their preferred candidate in advance of a recruitment process, as I am told has happened in at least two chief constable appointments.
  • The way that existing leaders value the experience of some roles over others in prospective candidates; for example an ACC with lots of child protection experience told me that he was told very bluntly that it counted against him when seeking his first chief officer role after he completed the SCC.
  • Perceptions that decisions about temporary and acting positions are not subject to equality of access and serve to tilt the playing field in favour of particular (ie favoured) candidates.
  • Concerns about the (alleged) role of the SCC in facilitating mutually-supportive cliques that can act as a barrier to career progression for those on the outside.
  • The implications of the shift to PCC governance, in particular the 1:1 relationship and need for interpersonal fit. This is said to be particularly salient at the DCC-CC level (see my blog from 2015 on chief officer appointments) but is also relevant to a broader point that since the advent of PCCs and reforms to the role of HMIC there has been no strategic management of chief officer talent in the interests of the police service as a whole; under localism this has been reduced to local interest decisions, which may not be in the wider interests of the service or the public.
  • The removal of the HMCIC role in appointments, which might previously have seen someone encouraged to take on an unpopular role with the promise of being looked on favourably for higher status roles in future (of course in some circumstances that may be highly problematic, especially if there is any perception of patronage or narrowing diversity/opportunities).

Four final points:

  • It seems reasonable to assume that austerity has been making chief officer jobs less appealing, given the obvious demands on senior leaders of making very difficult decisions while trying to maintain service levels and morale.
  • There is no doubt that policing in general, but chief officers in particular, are acutely aware of a high (and arguably increasing) level of organisational and personal exposure’ and scrutiny, including by PCCs, other politicians, the IPCC, HMIC and the media. This is said to be especially acute for chief constables.
  • There potentially seems to be a muddle in the police service about where talent management strays into patronage, and how the former can be done transparently, fairly and in a way that does not stifle diversity.
  • With the exception of one ACC, no-one has ever mentioned remuneration to me. It is clear that some former Police Authorities got into a certain amount of difficulty trying to incentivise people to take jobs or remain in post, for example paying retention bonuses that fell outside of national pay guidelines. On the other hand, it seems to be completely understandable that Police Authorities/PCCs would want to secure and retain the best talent, particularly at CC/DCC level, with the potential for considerable opportunity costs if, for example, chief constables leave every two to three years (I was recently told by a serving chief constable that average tenure is now as low as two years).

Privately, I have heard senior leaders in policing air concerns about a crisis of leadership, most clearly reflected in the difficulties some PCCs have encountered when recruiting chief constables. Given these concerns, the College research is to be welcomed. As in so many areas, the challenge now is to find a way to reconcile the parochialism of local governance and the needs of the police service as a whole. If the best police leaders don’t rise to the top the whole service will suffer.