Falling police morale: “dry your eyes” is no answer

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Related Theme: Workforce

Falling police morale: “dry your eyes” is no answer

‘Dry your eyes’. Three simple words as part of a late night Twitter chat that landed PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton in hot water. It should be noted that Chief Constable Hamilton apologised quickly and sincerely for any offence taken, but that is unlikely to prevent his words becoming emblematic of what some in the service feel is a tin ear among senior officers to low morale. The message was unequivocal: ‘if you don’t like it, you can leave’.

This debate has been bubbling away for some time. One cannot go through six years of austerity, frozen pay, pension reforms and job cuts without having some impact on morale.

A recent survey by the Police Federation found that only one in ten officers would recommend policing to other people. Another poll found that a majority of officers have given serious thought to leaving the service in recent years.

None of this will be news to chief officers: they are aware that morale has suffered, but they also know they have limited room for manoeuvre. For much of the last thirty years morale could be sustained by comparatively generous pensions and rising pay. These options are no longer available to them. Although the service received a reprieve in the last spending review, force budgets will remain under considerable pressure and, with an uncertain economic outlook, public sector pay restraint is unlikely to be eased.

However, such fatalism can be overcome if we reject the idea that staff can only be motivated by external rewards and punishments. In reality mostpeople are not pure instrumentalists. Indeed the Federation survey found that 58% of officers were willing ‘to go the extra mile’ for the police service. Research by Bradford et al. has shown that police officers are also driven by intrinsic motivations such as their commitment to their organisation and its overall purpose. That in turn is mediated by whether they believe that decisions are taken in a fair way and that they are listened to and respected.

On these questions of ‘organisational justice’ the police service has a long way to go. A 2012 survey by the Independent Police Commission found that a majority of police officers disagreed that communication was good in their organisation, that managers explained their decisions, that they were able to influence decisions and that promotion in their organisation was purely based on merit. Most officers, staff and PCSOs responding to the survey said that they were bullied some of the time.

This is not just a concern for police officers and staff, but for the public too. The Commission found that the proportion of officers in a force reporting bullying correlated with the number of complaints per head of population that the force received from the public in 2010/11. It also found a similar statistically significant relationship between the number of public complaints and how fair the internal processes of forces were perceived to be. So, how police officers are treated by their force seems to have spillover effects into how officers interact with the general public.

The challenge here is that much of this ‘organisational justice’ agenda remains counter-cultural in policing. Policing is a uniformed service that has long privileged a command and control management style. This is a culture that emphasises the importance of the ‘heroic leader’ and relegates police officers and staff to the role of passive followers. Policing has a deeply embedded rank structure that places considerable distance between ‘management cops’ and the rank and file. This traditional form of hierarchical management was given a modern impetus by the adoption of ‘new public management’ methods in the 1990s and 2000s, such as a regime of performance targets that considerably constrained the ability of individual officers to exercise their professional discretion.

The good news is that there is a growing consensus for change. The College of Policingleadership review concluded that a ‘command’ mode, while essential in many operational settings, should not be the only part of the police manager’s repertoire. The review advocated a more distributed model in which leadership is exercised at all levels, with officers operating with a high level of professional discretion supported by a strong base of knowledge. It recognised that ‘command and control’ can prevent officers ‘speaking truth to power’ and called for a flatter organisational structure.

Furthermore, some forces have implemented these ideas with positive effects. The Independent Police Commission found that in Durham, for example, a change programme called ‘Aiming for Excellence’ (AFE) adopted many of the characteristics of an organisational justice approach. Officers and staff were involved in the design of the programme through elected representatives and focus groups. As part of the programme there was a much greater emphasis on explaining decisions, on ensuring fairness in decision making and engaging the workforce. The evaluation found that the programme resulted in a much stronger sense of identification with the force among officers.

We should not make too much of George Hamilton’s comments. We have all said things on social media we regret. What the comments might do, however, is renew the discussion within policing about how we can go about improving morale in a context of austerity. To my mind this means focusing on the organisational form, leadership modes and culture of policing.