Crossing borders: Lessons and challenges of cross-force collaborations

Despite the widely acknowledged benefits of working in cross-force collaborations, there remain many obstacles to effective collaborative endeavours between forces. Dr Xavier L”Hoiry of Sheffield University explores the obstacles and proposes ways of overcoming them.

Collaborative working within the police is increasingly being recognised as an area of “untapped potential” (HMIC 2013, p81) for police forces in a contemporary age of austerity. But despite the widely acknowledged benefits of working in cross-force collaborations, recent reports suggest that there remain many obstacles to effective collaborative endeavours between forces.

This research sought to gather the views of police practitioners involved in cross-force collaborations in the North East region, to hear their reflections on the lessons and challenges from existing collaborations within the region and possible ways around these challenges (where they exist).

It captured a diverse range of capabilities and areas of business across the policing spectrum ranging from specialist, front-line activities to back office functions and enabling services.

This is particularly timely in light of a number of recent reports on the issue of police collaborative working. A 2013 HMIC report declared that despite the “untapped potential” of collaborations, the existing picture was “deeply disappointing” (2013, p81).

The report found a general lack of collaborative working and where collaborations were in place, the pace of such arrangements was deemed to be “too slow” (2013, p15) with only a minority of forces delivering satisfactory savings through collaboration.

Elsewhere, in 2016 a report by the Police Foundation identified a number of obstacles to successful collaboration, including issues of parochialism and tensions between larger and smaller (or more rural) forces and concerns over inequitable distribution of resources as part of collaborative working. The NPCC also released a report in 2016 which noted the “slow progress” (2016, p3) around the issue of increasing technical specialist capabilities and concluded that existing collaborative delivery in specialist capabilities is often “highly fragmented” (2016, p4).

Benefits of collaboration

Collaborative working can be a valuable tool to achieve a range of policing goals, a view universally acknowledged by participants.

The benefits of collaborations are multi-faceted and include (but are not limited to):

  • increasing capacity and capability
  • adding creativity
  • enabling forces to maximise best practices
  • harmonising policies and procedures
  • enabling resources to be spread on wider geographical footing
  • increasing quality of service to some areas
  • reassuring the public
  • overcoming historical cultural divides
  • reducing costs and ensuring efficiency savings

Specifically, in a contemporary context of austerity, collaboration was seen as an opportunity to make efficiency savings, pool resources, to “do more with less” and build resilience within forces.

Inhibitors to collaboration

Despite the many benefits of collaborative working, participants identified a multitude of existing problems and inhibitors to successful innovation and collaboration.

Participants reflected that the police as an organisation has historically been resistant to change, often only accepting change as a response to episodic crises. This inertia becomes particularly prominent when forces are asked not just to change their existing practices but potentially to adopt a different force’s policies and procedures.

Here, organisational cultures become particularly problematic and historical mistrust between different forces comes to the fore as an ongoing blocker of collaborations. Indeed, several participants highlighted the presence of ‘big force vs small force’ tensions inherent in many proposed or existing collaborations between forces of different size, capability and demand.

Smaller forces may be concerned that collaborating with a larger force gives rise to the risk of resources being pulled away from the former and sucked into the greater demands of the latter. Concurrently, one participant from a larger force lamented the labels attached to larger organisations and argued that criticism of a “hoarding” of resources was unjust and rooted in historical, cultural mistrust amongst forces.

Alongside cultural barriers is the contemporary reality of the increasingly political nature of the police. Participants noted that, in their eyes, political imperatives significantly influence collaborative endeavours. PCCs, for instance, were sometimes viewed as being predominantly concerned with short-term results linked to four-year (re)election cycles. Such an approach implicitly demands that collaborations yield immediate results, an often unrealistic and unhelpful aim.

Collaboration, which may inevitably involve some forces diluting and sharing their local resources, is seen as a political risk to some PCCs and senior police officers. Protectionism and parochialism thus become inhibitors of innovation, with one participant arguing that some PCCs and Chief Constables view collaboration as “turkeys voting for Christmas”.

Even when the above inhibitors can and are overcome, collaborative work is often undermined by a plethora of practical and logistical problems. Perhaps most prominent amongst these, from an operational perspective, is the seemingly perennial problem of ICT. According to participants, differences in ICT platforms, the lack of inter-operability of systems and individual officers’ unfamiliarity with new systems become significant hurdles to new and existing collaborations.

Facilitating collaboration

Participants argued that trust and confidence are central to facilitating any transformative collaborative change in the police. Trust and confidence can be built by celebrating the successes of existing collaborations.

For this to happen, the narrative of collaborations, and more specifically the success of existing collaborations, needs to change. Celebrating and highlighting existing successful collaborations can act as a form of confidence building for officers and staff across the entire policing hierarchy which can help to secure “buy-in” for new collaborations.

As discussed above, while the political imperatives of some senior police officers and staff are seen as an inhibitor of collaborations, it is equally argued that senior leadership can play a crucial role in driving forward collaborative work and overcoming other hurdles.

Collaborations, particularly during early stages, can often be held together by the vision of senior leadership in police organisations, including PCCs and their Chief Executive Officers. This requires clarity of vision and genuine commitment to collaborative efforts which goes beyond paying lip service to collaboration without any substantive action to reinforce this.

The timing and pace of collaborations also needs to be carefully considered to ensure success. The intended goals of collaboration are often only visible over the mid-to-long term, particularly in the case of efficiency savings.

Alongside this, new collaborations often place heavy demands on the time and energy of key individuals to reassure and corral potentially reluctant and worried staff. This can be a delicate process which often takes time and should not be rushed or forced. Thus expecting collaborations to produce desired outcomes in the short term is often unrealistic, unproductive and ultimately adds pressure on individuals and teams to perform in already challenging conditions.

Communication with staff can and should go beyond consultation and aim for coproduction in the design of new collaborations (or indeed reviews of existing collaborations). Doing so may achieve a number of important goals all conducive to giving collaborations the best chance of success, pit improves the potential for staff “buy-in” by giving them a voice in the design of a collaboration; it draws upon subject matter expertise of individuals; and it may act as a vehicle to overcome cultural reticence to change within the police more broadly.

Driving collaborations forward requires key individuals to show enthusiasm, energy, patience, vision and ultimately hard work. These individuals may be thought of as champions or brokers of collaboration and may encompass a range of different officers and staff involved at various stages of the development of collaborations.

The obvious examples here are heads of collaborative units. These individuals must be carefully selected and must be able to bring a wide range of skills to give collaborations the best possible chance of success.

Getting the best out of these collaboration champions may require empowering them with sufficient autonomy and flexibility to run their units as they see fit (within reason) as well as allowing them to surround themselves with the right support structures including a strong leadership team within a given unit.

Effective leadership of collaborative units, according to participants, necessitates visibility, credibility, genuine engagement with staff and a willingness to have difficult but productive conversations with officers across the rank structure. Moreover, one must be able to separate oneself from individual force affiliations and see the ‘bigger picture’ of collaboration.

These champions need not only be police officers. Police and OPCC civilian staff also have an important role to play here, particularly in the design of new collaborations. These individuals have a range of skills, expert knowhow and project management experience which may prove crucial and plug skills and experience gaps of police officers expected to lead these collaborations.

Conclusion

Despite the many obstacles to successful collaboration, it is worth remembering that those individuals involved in collaborative endeavours universally acknowledge the many and varied benefits of working in collaboration (when collaborations work well).

But overcoming barriers to collaboration and obtaining the benefits of collaborative working is predicated on a number of crucial considerations which centre on securing the ‘buy-in’ of individuals across policing hierarchies, ranging from Chief Constables and PCCs through to frontline officers in collaborative units themselves.

The political undercurrent of the policing landscape is a challenge here and at times makes some proposals for collaboration appear counter-intuitive to senior leaders in their respective forces.

Designing successful collaborations is possible and can be achieved in a number of ways including early and ongoing engagement with staff to generate coproduction of collaborative proposals; appointing and appropriately empowering individuals with appropriate skill sets in key design and management positions; allowing collaborations time to mature before producing desired outcomes; and building trust and confidence across police forces by celebrating the successes of existing collaborations in the region.

This research was formulated in consultation with the N8 Policing Research Partnership (N8PRP) and the North East Transformation Innovation and Collaboration (NETIC).

Methodology

The research conducted 16 face-to-face semi-structured interviews and 1 telephone interview with a sample of participants which encompassed a mixture of police officers and police staff. The fieldwork was carried out between January and February 2017. All participants in the research were involved at various stages of cross-force collaborations, from design through to operational management. Of the 17 participants involved in the study, 10 were police officers and 7 were civilian staff working for police forces and OPCCs in the North East region. The findings presented in this report have been selected to reflect the predominant and common views across interview participants.

References

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate Constabulary (2013) ‘Policing in Austerity: Rising to the Challenge’, available online at https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmic/media/policing-in-austerity-rising-to-the-challenge.pdf (last accessed 26 May 2016)

National Police Chiefs’ Council (2016) ‘The Specialist Capabilities Programme – Phase 1 Report’, available online at http://www.npcc.police.uk/documents/Specialist%20Capabilities%20Programme%20Phase%20One%20Report.pdf(last accessed 26 may 2017)

The Police Foundation (2016) ‘The governance of supra-force specialist policing capabilities – A review by The Police Foundation’, available online at http://www.police-foundation.org.uk/uploads/holding/projects/governance_of_supra_force_specialist_policing_capabilities.pdf(last accessed 26 May 2017)

First published in Policing Insight

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