12 08 2011

Photo: The Guardian

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often question the poor quality strategy which emanates from our elected  representatives both nationally and at a local level.

The recent riots and their aftermath and the ongoing debate ‘to cut or not to cut’ police budgets highlight the issue like no other and on a number of levels.

Let’s start on a positive note; the police response to the criminal behaviour on our streets has been fantastic and I am not alone in being extremely grateful to the brave men and women who have restored order.

How that order was restored was a triumph of good strategy. That might sound strange because in normal circumstances responding as our police did, within a very short time frame, might usually be seen as tactical rather than strategic. Let me explain why it was not.

Under normal circumstances it is usual to define a vision and develop a strategy to go after and achieve that vision. Short term actions, although an integral part of that strategy, tend to be termed ‘tactics.’ Although we think of this as ‘strategy’, it is, in fact, only one type of strategy albeit by far the most common. It is referred to as ‘Vision Based Strategy.’

In troubled times whether corporate issues, injuries in sport or rioting on our streets, the vision based strategy becomes redundant, if only for a while, as the immediate need trumps the long-term aim. When this happens a different type of strategy is demanded; the ‘Issue Based Strategy.’

I will go into more depth on the application of these two variations on strategy in a future blog but for now think of them like this:

  • In vision based strategy you decide on a destination and plan backwards to where you are currently to design your route to it. Vision based strategy tends to be for the medium to long-term.
  • In issue based strategy you identify an immediate or imminent threat or problem and plan forward to defeat it. Issue based strategy will always be short-term.

Hence, flooding the streets with officers, utilising reserves from other forces and changing to two shifts per 24 hours have proven to be a successful issue based strategy. However, this type of strategy tends to be resource heavy and therefore is unsustainable in the medium to long-term.

Which brings us nicely back to the apparent absence of any real strategy prior to the riots; a status history tells us we will soon return to.

Let’s take a look at some of the problems, both recent and historic, which impede the development of good strategy for our police:

1. Politics is managed by economists.

The debate over the cuts to the police budgets is a case in point. The economists on one side of the political table say it is essential to cut to balance the books, those on the other side say it isn’t. The ‘managers’ (read politicians) back their ‘own guy.’

I am not suggesting that the manager and the economist are not vital players in the process however I am suggesting that there are two empty seats at the table; that of the strategist and the leader.

For where management is fundamentally about making best use of your resources, leadership is about taking people with you in an agreed direction. And where the economists will advise the managers where to budget to balance the books, the strategist will look at the effective, efficient and economical application of resource.

So, while those in Westminster are arguing whether to cut or not the strategist is saying; “hold on, let’s look at the bigger picture here. We can probably maintain, or even improve, that service by deciding what its purpose is and the best way (effective, efficient, economical) to get it there.”

The leader is then far better placed to take the people with him because the case becomes one built on purpose not one of saving or spending. (Example; five councils in West Yorkshire have just saved £1.6m p.a. for their council tax payers by integrating their legal services. The service/purpose is maintained, the books are more likely to balance).

2. Structure is limiting strategy.

In any walk of life it is a mistake to define your structure before deciding what purpose that structure has to serve. Yet this is exactly what nearly fifty years of politicians have done with our police.

The world has changed since the 1960s (photo: BBC)

The world has changed since the 1960s (photo: BBC)

The last time the structure of our police was reviewed fully and independently with any view as to its strategic purpose was 1962 (prior to the Police Act of 1964). There have been a number of structural amendments since then but none linked to specific purpose laid down by strategy.

We now live in a very different world from that of the early 1960s and structural reform is long overdue. This was acknowledged yesterday in the Commons by the Prime Minister although it remains to be seen what new structure will be proposed and whether it is designed to service any properly thought out, vision based national policing strategy.

3. The ‘destination’ is lacking.

Of course, to say there is no strategy to British policing would be incorrect. However, what strategy there is is restricted by not only being shoe-horned to fit structure but by lacking any properly defined destination.

The Metropolitan Police will have their strategy and other forces further, distinct plans of their own. The issue based strategy employed by the Met relied strongly on other forces having spare capacity; that is something that cannot be planned for on a force by force basis, it is something that occurred as much by luck as judgement. Having that spare capacity can only happen if either each individual force plans it unilaterally or an overarching national strategy recognises the need.

Not only are local forces hampered in their planning by poor structural thinking and by a degree of reliance on luck, many are also limited by lacking any clear vision.  And medium to long-term strategy without vision is immediately limited by lacking any clear destination.

I will single Suffolk Constabulary out, not because they are any worse than their fellow forces but because their very poor Vision was recently brought to my attention; “We take pride in keeping Suffolk safe, while ensuring all our communities value and trust what we do.

It’s typical of modern ‘new managerialism’ and ‘new public management’ ‘visioning’ in that it confuses vision with mission and sets no clear destination towards which the organisation can plan its path. Worse, it is a statement based in ‘now’ not in their destination.

This is not to say that Suffolk Police do not also have a Mission but, unfortunately, that is as flawed as their Vision and reads more like a weak list of strategic outcomes; that is definitions of goals to be achieved if the destination is to be reached.

Suffolk are not alone among UK police forces in getting these important points wrong and thereby limiting their strategy’s potential to deliver the level of success the dedication of their officers, not to mention their community, deserve.

Closing the loop; if the structure is limiting and the quality of what strategy that structure permits is poor then where the economist sees the need to save money, the strategist sees ways to provide policing far more effectively, efficiently and more economically.

The bottom line is that in tough economic times the service can be maintained because it is so streamlined, so well-honed while in the good times the funding now being debated can be put to far better use either within the police service or in the prevention of crime served by elements of the wider economy such as education, health, sport and community provision.

Whatever does happen, we should remember that front-line police are not to blame for the shortcomings of their senior officers and, more specifically, politicians. Whatever we think of the overall picture, the men and women on that front-line deserve our dedicated, unerring thanks and support.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, August 2011

Twitter @cowanglobal



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