Bill and Bob have the same goal. Both need to get in shape and improve their health. Their doctor tells them that by this time next year they each need to lose a couple of stone, drop a waist size, lower their blood pressure and be able to run a mile in a faster time. Their goals are now targets. They have something quantifiable and unambiguous to aim for, they can monitor their progress and the doctor can keep tabs on how they are getting on.
Bill is taking this seriously, and he knows something about how to get in shape. It’s about eating less and exercising more, right? So, every couple of days he jumps on the scales, measures his waist, checks his blood pressure, sets his stopwatch. Sometimes the numbers seem to be heading in the right direction, sometimes they don’t, it’s a tough ask. His doctor is not sympathetic. Bill resolves to try harder: more exercise, less food, more focus. The goals are important; he needs to hit his targets and time is ticking on. He stops caring so much about the other things in his life, his work and relationships suffer. But he knows what matters, he’s clear what his priorities are. Some of the things he does start to backfire. Sometimes he gets hungry then overeats, he gets niggling injuries from the exercise. It gets harder to work harder, the figures start heading in the wrong direction. He refocuses, doubles down, tells himself he must do more. Dedication edges towards anxiety, obsession even, he starts to contemplate little cheats; he cuts a corner off his run, skips meals before a weigh-in, mis-records a number here, sneaks a biscuit there – the doctor will never know.
Bob is also committed, but he’s a different beast to Bill. He doesn’t jump straight on the scales; he starts by making a plan. He does his research, finds out what the science says about losing weight and getting fit in a healthy and sustainable way (the doctor seemed strangely uninterested in discussing this). He looks at his lifestyle and analyses his diet, works out where he can make changes that fit around his other commitments. He plans his meals, works out an exercise programme, thinks about what else he needs to stay on track: rest, support, variety, reward. He starts to put the plan into action and keeps things under review, but rather than measuring his blood pressure each morning or timing his daily run, he asks himself: how’s the plan going? Am I sticking to it? If not, what do I need to change to get back on track? Every so often he does check the data, but while Bill constantly asks: ‘How am I doing?’, ‘Am I doing enough?’, Bob’s approach is less narcissistic: ‘What’s going on here?’ and in the light of that, ‘What’s the best thing I can do next?’
Who do you think would be most likely to meet their targets at the end of the year? Maybe both, maybe neither, but I know where I’d put my money. But targets aside, it’s pretty clear that Bob will be the one in better shape, closer to his goal (rather than its numerical approximation) and better prepared to set his sights on new goals for the next year.
Analogies always simplify, but it’s plain to see which of our self-improvers the police have tended to channel when crime reduction targets have been handed down from the government in the past. Few would disagree that they have been far too much like Bill. But, with the long-trailed return of Home Office crime targets (‘outcome monitors’, ‘benchmarked comparators’, call them what you will) seemingly a step closer, and with senior sources bemoaning the inevitable retrogression to perverse incentives, skewed priorities, stifling bureaucracy and ‘target culture’, it’s worth reminding ourselves that there is another way.
The first thing police forces should do is make a plan. It should be evidence-based, informed by local analysis, deliverable and realistic in the context of all their other operational priorities, values and obligations. It needs to have a theory of change and be rich with details of the (unfashionable) inputs and outputs that are expected to make the crime reductions happen. It should acknowledge contingencies; much that’s useful will be beyond police control, but that shouldn’t prevent them seeking to influence, partner and persuade. Ideally, there should also be some coordination and cooperation between forces – surely preferable to the puerile, and frankly distasteful, nudgery of baiting Chief Constables to scrap it out over who’s got the smallest pile of murder victims (the same Chief Constables, by the way, who the government have relentlessly encouraged to collaborate over the last decade). Here, there seems to be an important role for the College of Policing to collate and package the evidence and, if forces do want to take varied approaches, to make sure the differences are structured and captured in ways that allow for methodical learning.
Police and Crime Commissioners clearly have a role in working with forces to draw up their plans, which, once completed, should also be shared with the Home Office and HMICFRS – one of the worst things about ‘target culture’ is the way it often reduces the role of ‘superiors’ (from front line supervisors to Home Secretaries) to reinforcing the imperative; everyone with a stake needs to be engaged with the how from the start, as well as with the how important. As far as operational sensitivities allow, plans should also be made public; surely it is more reassuring to know that the police have a well thought out action plan (especially if we can then see they are delivering on it) than to hear the government bashing helmets together on our behalf.
Then – and this is the crucial bit – police force leaders need to rigorously project/performance manage delivery against the plan NOT against the crime data. Just like Bob, they need to resist the temptation to jump on the scales and get on with the job of doing what they said they were going to do. Trouble-shoot, unblock, expedite, escalate, hold people to account for what’s within their control if you must, but, if it’s a good plan, you don’t need to continually check if its working – just make sure its being properly implemented. After a while (maybe four to six months into the year?) it probably is worth checking the metrics, to see if things are heading in the right direction and whether the plan needs to be tweaked, but before messing with the blueprint, leaders will need to be sure that they’ve given it a fair test: Is it the plan or the delivery that’s flawed here?
Of course, plans need to include arrangements for regularly monitoring crime (and other) data, to inform agile, tactical delivery. Police will need to spot and respond to crime patterns and trends, in line with well-established National Intelligence Model processes. But here the focus should stay on intelligence analysis (what’s going on?), not performance analysis (how are we doing?). Crime rates are false mirrors, pleasing or hideous, it is not (only) you that you see reflected.
Governments have the right, the duty even, to articulate a vision of society for public services to strive towards. Crime count performance targets may be a clumsy and partial way of doing this, we may not agree with the vision or with the mechanism, but it is incumbent on the police to respond. But Chief Constables are operationally independent. They have the final say on how they work towards those goals. Cultures can change. Incentives, perverse or otherwise, are not imperatives. We’ve tried Bill’s way and look where it got us. It’s time to make a sensible plan and stick to it. It’s time to be more like Bob.