Reflecting on the MOPAC evaluation of Police Now’s first cohort

Blog post

Reflecting on the MOPAC evaluation of Police Now’s first cohort

This week saw the publication of a process and impact evaluation of the first Police Now Graduate Leadership Development Programme cohort in the MPS, which saw 67 recruits join the programme in July 2015 and 55 remaining at the end of the two-year period. Police Now’s stated aim is to ‘transform communities, reduce crime and increase the public’s confidence in policing’, in particular by attracting high performing graduates who might not otherwise consider a career in policing. Their grand vision – set out in their Case for Change – is not just to improve policing but to ‘catalyse powerful social change’.

The evaluation, undertaken by MOPAC – the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime – had five main objectives:

– To explore the delivery and processes of the first Police Now programme;
– To understand how Police Now participants experience the job of policing;
– To explore Police Now participants’ attitudes and how they change over time;
– To examine participants’ willingness to engage in innovative evidence based policing practices; and
– To measure the indicative impact of the programme on public perceptions and crime.

I want to share some reflections on the evaluation that I think put those findings in some context. To start in a sense at the end, relatively few innovations in policing are subject to robust evaluation, and demonstrating impact is always a challenge, especially in the early days. In the present case, the evaluation found little evidence that the ambitions to reduce crime and increase public confidence were realised over the initial two-year period.

1. Innovation takes time to develop

Anyone who has been around policing for any length of time, especially if they’ve been involved in developing and evaluating new ways of working, knows that getting implementation right is always difficult and takes time. I liken it to making pancakes, when the first one is almost always a disappointment, because the batter is too thick or the pan not hot enough.

It bears repeating that this evaluation is of the very first Police Now cohort, and those involved in delivering the programme will have been learning as they went along. By the time of the 2017 Police Now Impact Report, more than 300 recruits had followed in the footsteps of the initial 67. Indeed, I understand that Police Now is explicitly set up to continuously improve, with a process of constant reflection and refinement. That’s not to contest the evaluation findings, only to observe that Police Now is a bit of a moving feast. To my analogy: just because the first pancake wasn’t quite right doesn’t mean that the second will be likewise, unless of course I don’t change anything.

2. Challenging the status quo: recruitment and training

Police Now poses some important questions for the wider police service about recruitment and training processes, taking a very different approach that significantly compresses the timescales involved. If policing wants to compete for the brightest and best graduates – and I am aware many in policing think that shouldn’t be a concern – then timeliness is hugely important. Students graduating from the best universities will be inundated with opportunities and many will have a degree of choice over employers – it’s a competitive jobs market. What’s more, in most cases they’ll be interviewed and assessed and receive firm job offers in a relatively short timeframe. Any police force that takes months and months over recruitment decisions must put itself at an automatic disadvantage.

That said, it is clear that in its ambition to push harder and do things faster, the first cohort and their supervisors found the training, while generally very positive, to be lacking in a key regard. Only a third of the PN officers felt confident that they were prepared to start their roles as police officers, and there was a general view that the training needed more of a practical focus. The evaluation acknowledges, however, that feelings of confidence and preparedness are also issues for new police officers entering policing through the traditional route.

The evaluation doesn’t tell us how much this all cost (noting that PN couldn’t benefit from economies of scale at this early stage), nor whether PN achieved its aim of attracting a different type and calibre of applicant. PN’s own 2017 Impact Report states that almost half of new PN recruits reported that they wouldn’t have considered a career in policing without the existence of PN and highlights both the educational background and diversity of successful applicants, but I think the jury may still be out.

3. Managing expectations

Drawing on the experience of Teach First (see the Police Now Case for Change), Police Now sets very ambitious goals for its officers and in its own Impact Report makes some narrowly-framed early claims for having begun to realise them. The present evaluation, however, is more circumspect, finding scant evidence overall to conclude that PN increased public trust and confidence and none that it reduced crime.

Acknowledging that it is early days, I can’t help reflecting on whether PN’s goals – to achieve transformational change in public confidence and crime rates in London’s most challenged neighbourhoods – are realistic. For one thing, PN officers are new and inexperienced and in keeping with most police officers feel (in a majority of cases, according to the evaluation) under-resourced. Also in common with their non-PN colleagues, they suffer from declining levels of job satisfaction and morale over time. Meanwhile, unlike teachers on Teach First, who have a relatively ‘captive audience’, PN officers operate out in the open in communities of perhaps 10 to 12,000 residents, most of whom will have no contact with policing in any given year.

4. Long term rhetoric, short-term working – and an EBP gap

Related to how realistic PN’s ambitions are, I also wonder about the model that PN requires its officers to adopt.

PN’s Case for Change describes the way its officer will adopt a ‘long-term, prevention perspective’ to achieve transformational change, yet officers are expected to sustain an apparently rather short-term approach, including demonstrating impact over a series of 100-day periods. What’s more, although the ambition for PN is that it will ‘build an evidence base for approaches that make a demonstrable difference’, the MOPAC evaluation finds that while evidence-based policing (EBP) principles were well understood by PN officers, there was a ‘lack of practical use of EBP evident within the assessments’, in which only ‘6 [of the 70 examined] incorporated any previous learning from the literature’ and ‘only 4 used a comparison group’ to explore empirical impact. I’m told that at the time the EBP elements of PN training were rather purist in approach, and have since been adapted – in response to feedback – to being of more practical value to police officers working locally to short timescales, with an emphasis on the SARA approach to problem-oriented policing. That seems eminently sensible.

A couple of other issues seem noteworthy.

First, I might observe that the evidence base cannot be limited to what works, but must also extend to what doesn’t. There may be a risk that the emphasis on demonstrating impact in the short-term results in initiatives that are doomed to succeed and is at odds with developing the wider evidence base (including by taking risks and trying out new approaches).

Second, it’s perhaps worth saying at this point that PN officers are quite intentionally working in some of the most challenged neighbourhoods, characterised in most cases by high crime rates, entrenched problems of crime and disorder and, I strongly suspect, long-standing issues with police-community relations. I do wonder if having to demonstrate impact in 100-day chunks incentivises a focus on ‘quick and dirty’ interventions, low-hanging fruit and superficial problems and is therefore in tension with commendable long term and preventative ambitions. There are difficult balances to be struck.

5. The evaluation itself

I’ve already mentioned that the evaluation didn’t address whether PN has been successful in bringing a new type of candidate into policing, nor how the costs stack up against the status quo. I think three other issues are worth mentioning.

First, a technical point. The evaluation uses matched wards to compare those with PN officers to those without, based on something called the vulnerable localities index. However, there remained systematic differences in crime rates between the (higher crime) PN wards and the comparators, suggesting that the PN wards are unusual outliers. That must necessarily confound the analysis to some degree.

Second, the evaluation doesn’t tell us anything about the relative levels of resourcing and policing experience in the PN and matched wards, so we don’t know how far the like-for-like comparison extends.

Third, there is – perhaps inevitably given likely limits on evaluation resources – no community voice, which is relevant both to understand whether (if at all) PN officers are perceived differently to their non-PN colleagues, but also the degree to which they are meeting expectations to demonstrate leadership in the communities where they work.

Concluding thoughts

So far the evidence base about the impact of Police Now in hard policing terms must be considered thin, but it is only early days and their commitment to evaluation and continuous improvement should be commended. That they are being judged in the short term when the PN project must be long term is unfortunate but also unsurprising.

PN is trying to do things differently at a time when policing is severely stretched and every penny counts. That must inevitably set the bar far higher – in terms of convincing the wider police service that they are doing something important and impactful and should be supported – than would be the case in times of plenty. That Police Now has been able to secure £5m funding to expand despite the lack of evidence of impact is quite naturally a talking point, especially when set against the other ways that money could be spent, including providing more officers and developing those already in service. Opportunity cost considerations and ‘whataboutery’ are not easily dismissed.

My personal view is that innovation should be encouraged, risks need to be taken and time allowed before conclusions are reached. In the end, however, individual police forces will decide if Police Now’s substance matches their rhetoric and they like what is on offer.