Simple Simon KISSed a Policeman…
The title of this blog post isn’t as PC as it could or should be but please note; there is absolutely no intent to offend or denigrate the value of any person carrying out the role of Constable, irrespective of gender or sexuality. Male or female and by birth or by choice, all these people are immensely valuable to our society and should be seen as such by all of us but sadly, that often isn’t the case.
‘Simple Simon‘ is relevant to this story because, metaphorically and figuratively speaking, keeping things ‘simple’ is often the most productive way of doing things well, despite all the best efforts and knee-jerk reactions of meddling and self-serving politicians, bureaucrats and managers. And I got much of the advice from Simon!
Call the ‘cops’ what you will, and today that’s usually something mostly derogatory, but our police forces are now too often unable to provide the levels of public service that our society expects, let alone protect us from the harm we fear. Despite much of that ‘fear’ having been maliciously created by our media.
Unfortunately, sometimes the service that our police provide isn’t as good as it could or should be but more importantly, it often bears little or no resemblance to the quality expectations that we hold as a society.
The reason for this anomaly sits squarely at the feet of Police Chiefs and politicians, all ably assisted by a less than factual media machine. They have all been systematically deceiving the public. Saying or implying that you can and will deliver something that you can’t, won’t or shouldn’t be delivery is mostly a bare-faced lie. So much for open and honest transparency, but I digress.
Perhaps the need for a ‘Policing for Dummies’ manual is long overdue? Maybe things could be different if S.M.A.R.T. criteria gave way to K.I.S.S. principles in management protocols? Whichever way you look at management, you can bet your bottom dollar (insert your chosen relevant currence here) some ‘educated’ (or humorous) academic would come along and say; “oh no, it’s not that simple, it’s much more complicated than that” (see here).
But it’s hardly surprising so many aspects of our public services have become so inefficient. In many ways our systems have created ingrained complication and levels of inherent deceit. We constantly measure, check and recheck everything to ensure we are within targeted parametres and spend most of our time recording and reporting on everything, relevant or not. But much of this process and associated knee-jerk reaction to changing parameters mostly comes from self-interest, a need to justify and populise one’s own position.
Managers! If you don’t understand the system or how to improve it, please just leave it alone until you do. You will make it worse. (Intelligent Policing: How Systems Thinking Methods Eclipse Conventional Management Practice – Simon Guilfoyle)
The public sector might not as yet be totally broken but we are seeing (and suffering from) the impacts of systems mismanagement. Our society and quality of life is reliant upon effective public services but, as many of these are becoming less efficient and grinding to a halt, what can be done to reverse the trends?
The negative impacts of all this past tinkering within our public services is something that I and many others have complained about and for several years now. Mostly our views have been dismissed as unfounded, irrelevant, ‘crying wolf’ and delivered from a self-centred standpoint.
Not so and thankfully, although perhaps not the best word choice, many more ‘service users’ (public) are now starting to see and understand what the frontline public service delivery teams have been warning about for some time. This commonality of angst, often expressed via social-media accounts (My Blog / Simon’s Blog / My Twitter / Simon’s Twitter), was the conduit that introduced me to Simon Guilfoyle.
Perhaps more importantly, it also introduced me to some of the ‘science’ behind what I already knew was wrong… the system! It was, in the main, the system that was broken, not the passion or desire of those delivering the services at the front end, despite what politicians and the media would mischievously have us believe.
Intelligent Policing is a rich resource for those – in the UK and around the world – who care about delivering an effective policing service in the 21st Century. It will also interest systems theorists for its practical approach to policing and inform academic debate in the fields of management and human behaviour. (Amazon.co.uk)
Despite having published his book ‘Intelligent Policing‘ some time ago now (2013), I have only recently finished reading it. I’ve dipped in and out but finally got around to reading it from cover to cover.
The first thing that struck me from reading the book was; despite much of critical acclaim (mostly from his peers) Simon’s words of advice appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Little if anything appears to have changed. I suspect there was a good deal of the “wow, I’m shocked” moments and then, for fear of rocking an unstable boat, most readers will have resumed their normal activities.
In 2015, Theresa May was incandescent at the Police Federation annual conference when she berated members for ‘Crying Wolf’ about the impact of financial cuts to budgets (see here). May’s comments have come back to bite her in the backside (post Manchester Arena bomb May 2017), but she’s mostly continued with her ‘police scaremongering’ rhetoric (see here).
It’s a little ironic and somewhat annoying that policing, apparently incensed by past politically motivated statements, still appears to be resistant to change, of any sort. Perhaps now more than ever before, irrespective of the drivers or causes, change has to take place. Standing still and struggling under current constraints will achieve nothing, at least nothing positive.
Criminal: The Truth About Why People Do Bad Things – The way we see and understand crime falls into two types of story that, in essence, have been told and retold many times throughout human history – in fiction, as in fact. Criminality is either a selfish choice, an aberration; or a forced choice, the product of social factors. These two stories continue to dominate both our views of and responses to crime. Both are completely wrong! (Tom Gash)
As Tom Gash puts it; we’re always obsessed with ‘big arguments’ when it comes to dispelling myths that surround and inform our views of many things, not least crime. Why should our thoughts about policing be any different?
The ’causes’ of crime can lead us to “mistake individual cases as proof of universal rules.” Guilfoyle and Gash are united by their observations that say… “we need to suspend our knee-jerk reactions, and begin to understand” issues for what they are. When you apply some ‘systems thinking’ to the process, even the inexperienced and uneducated should be able to see where the problems are.
As John Sutherland, an experienced police commander in the Metropolitan Police, pointed out in his book (Blue: A Memoir – Keeping the Peace and Falling to Pieces); “We need to get beyond the recurring madness of ‘hitting the target’ but missing the point.” Policing, like other public services (e.g NHS) aren’t even getting close to their mostly politically contrived ‘targets’ any more, never mind achieving the bloody things. And worryingly, those who still remain and try to deliver the services we want are suffering.
I see more good coppers working under significantly greater strain than at any previous point in my career. (John Sutherland)
We are all suffering from binary comparisons measured usually for populist (wrong) reasons. Most of the time all we are doing is delivering additional (mostly negative) unexpected impacts upon reducing resources. Yea… like that makes total sense…not
Systems in organisations begin to collapse if one or more components act in a self-interested way, such as maximising their own outputs (or profit, test scores, vehicle fleet, budgetary savings, etc.), and they become directionless and ineffective when management methods interfere with or obscure the system’s aim or purpose. (Simon Guilfoyle)
Most public sector service delivery, policing and other emergency response services in particular, are all about effective risk management and delivery of services that mitigate against harm. Yes, there will always be a need to professionally and effectively measure and manage these important services however; when collecting, analysing and reporting upon the measurements becomes almost the sole sense of organisational purpose, things have gone horribly wrong.
It’s interesting that back in 2010, Theresa May told police that they mustn’t chase performance targets any longer (see here) but, issuing an instruction whilst still misunderstanding the role of policing, and wrongly applying the same type of measures and knee-jerk populist reactions to issues, was always destined to failure.
June 2010: I call on all of you, chief constables and police authority members alike, to take the same, radical approach to cutting bureaucracy as we are taking in Whitehall. (Theresa May)
I can’t say I’ve seen much evidence to suggest that statement was delivered with honest intent, let alone actually came to fruition. The cumbersome bureaucratic political machine of government still rumbles on relentlessly. Mostly with absolutely no cognisance of the ‘evidence’ that indicates change is required. Take the government drug strategy and the continued so-called War on Drugs as another case in point.
Despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary, along with decades of experience involving acute failures; much of the current policy and procedure around how best to deal with drugs, let alone the social and individual impacts of substance addiction, are still sat firmly in the past. Resulting mostly from political self-interest, broken social cohesion and medical profitability factors, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest; we’re an advanced civilised society who still clinging on to a comfort blanket from the dark ages.
So why don’t politicians, bureaucrats and organisational management constantly fail to follow the evidence? Or, even when they do, appear to do little that could implement beneficial change based upon that body of evidence?
In a recent paper titled ‘The Natural Selection of Bad Science published by The Royal Society, there was an attempt to answer these intriguing and most important questions. Could there be reasons why people don’t listen to and act upon evidence? Is it that simple or, as is often the case, perhaps it’s just “far more complicated than that.”
Poor research design and data analysis encourage false-positive findings. Such poor methods persist despite perennial calls for improvement, suggesting that they result from something more than just misunderstanding. (The Natural Selection of Bad Science)
The academic Theodore Dalrymple, a retired prison Doctor and Psychiatrist recently concluded on reviewing the paper (see here) that, according to the authors; “the problem is not merely that people do bad science, as they have always done, but that our current system of career advancement positively encourages it.” Ergo, it’s not that we don’t listen to the ‘evidence’ more that the science is (probably) flawed in the first place.
The paper apparently quoted an anonymous researcher who said pithily: ‘Poor methods get results.’ But Dalrymple continued his review by pointing out Goodart’s Law, an important social economic theory that any government bureaucracy or public service would do well to adopt and adhere to. The theory, also cited by Guilfoyle and Sutherland, amongst others, is often paraphrased as: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
Put simply, it’s the process whereby individuals try to anticipate the effect of a policy by meddling / tinkering with a policy, without evidence-based purpose, which alters the planned outcome(s). The authors of the paper went on to quote the American social scientist Donald T Campbell who said;
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
Why should policing, or any other public sector service for that matter, be any different?
So the situation would appear to be; truth and/or fact is no longer important, what matters is the physical publication of an author’s opinion, factual or otherwise… “The persistence of poor methods results partly from incentives that favour them, leading to the natural selection of bad science.”
Whenever quantitative metrics are used as proxies to evaluate and reward scientists, those metrics become open to exploitation if it is easier to do so than to directly improve the quality of research. (The Natural Selection of Bad Science)
Once again we return full circle to many of Guilfoyle’s well-explained hypotheses or assumptions. Systems management theory observed critically through practical eyes and all presented succinctly in an easy to understand format within his book.
Using binary comparisons and limited data does not provide an accurate picture of performance and is akin to flying in the dark, with a blindfold on, and upside down. Relying on binary comparisons to decide operational priorities is like sticking one’s finger in the air or drawing straws. (Simon Guilfoyle)
I commend Guilfoyle’s ‘guidelines’ to all public sector managers, and not just those in policing. Read the book, gain a better understanding of systems process, even if you can’t or won’t implement the change that is now so desperately required. If you are truly committed to providing a quality service, as opposed to just point scoring for self-advancement, it would be foolhardy not to!