Policing Insight Interview – Mutual benefit: How a major partnership between academics and police is impacting policing

This interview was conducted and written by Andrew Staniforth for Policing Insight. The original article can be viewed on the Policing Insight website.

As the N8 Policing Research Partnership celebrates its fifth anniversary, Director Professor Adam Crawford explains to Policing Insight the key successes of co-produced research with police officers, and outlines the challenges that lie ahead for sustaining collaborative police and academic research partnerships.

The N8 Policing Research Partnership published its fourth annual report earlier this month. What have been the highlights of research activity over the last 12 months?

There have been many, but one notable highlight has been the continuing professional development programme for data analysts, the first cohort of which ran during 2018. What particularly pleases me about this strand of activity is that it was never foreseen as planned at the outset, it very much came out of the whole collaborative purpose of the partnership. It was gratifying as the initiative came from our policing partners in the Steering Group and was genuinely co-produced as a programme in its design and delivery.

 “The programme has not only identified the data analysts role as a key resource and asset but has also provided champions for the kind of work we are doing and served to champion the role of data analysts within policing.”

The particular role that data analysts play in policing and the public sector more broadly is critically important in delivering evidence-based practice and in valuing data and research. So we listened to the challenges analysts experienced of not being able to fully exploit their data rich environment and sought to build something that responded to this. We put together a co-produced programme, aligned to evidence-based policing principles with researchers and front line practitioners and identified the demand for certain training and skilling in new technologies and data tools.  The programme has not only identified the data analysts role as a key resource and asset but has also provided champions for the kind of work we are doing and served to champion the role of data analysts within policing.

Last year we put together a ten-day data analyst training programme lead by colleagues at Lancaster University and the University of Leeds.  The training brought different strands of N8 together with specific subjects covered across the ten full days. All 11 partner police forces in the north provided three data analysts and the feedback was really very positive.

We have subsequently developed the programme reflecting on the experience and feedback received last year, particularly bringing research focus and practical tools together. We are currently delivering a second round of training of 8-day sessions, which acknowledges the difficulty for all data analysts to attend given operational constraints. For the second cohort, 46 people signed up for the training which this time includes data analysts from combined authorities, including the Mayor’s office in Manchester and data analysts from offices of Police and Crime Commissioners.  We are now planning of a third cohort in 2020 and are in discussions with the College of Policing around accreditation. We are keen to develop the programme and put some of it on a digital online platform so that it can be more widely accessed.

The N8 Policing Research Partnership celebrated its fifth anniversary during November 2018. What has been the secret to the success of the partnership thus far?

“The most important element in the partnership is the foundational idea of co-production, designing and delivering research together that cuts across the boundaries of police and academic disciplines.”

The success is the benefit of having a significant number of universities and police forces come together around shared objectives, but being focused on the frontline policing challenges. In some sense, it is the diversity of this partnership that is the real success.  We are able to offer a programme that sits above the bi-lateral relationship between police forces and their local universities, offering more cutting-edge ideas and research focus and collaboration.

There is no lead force model, understanding all forces have their own challenges and we can build relationships on a bigger scale and not just operate in a responsive mode but exploring the policing challenges of tomorrow and further down the line five or more years from now.

But the most important element in the partnership is the foundational idea of co-production, designing and delivering research together that cuts across the boundaries of police and academic disciplines. The real value of co-producing research in the partnership is that the ideas people come up with are amplified through inter-institutional collaboration and the research outcomes are subsequently much greater than individual professions could deliver separately. This approach on a large scale is ambitious and is in itself labour intensive but I think the co-production of research, with police officers and researchers working together, has been really successful and we have built an infrastructure that allows this approach to flourish.

From an academic perspective, what have been the key achievements of the N8 PRP since its creation in 2013?

A key achievement has been establishing and securing the relations that sustain the partnership. While the existing N8 partnership of the eight research-intensive universities in the north provided a platform and structure to plug into, we had to build the infrastructure.

There were some pre-existing relationships between police forces and university partners and we experienced some constraints including the movement of key academics who left N8 institutions, as well as the inevitable movement of key police officers.

Despite these challenges, we have created an infrastructure for the partnership that has allowed policing research to develop. A key achievement here has been the number of small grants that we have been able to fund and support. With a relatively small amount of money these grant-funded projects have gone on to deliver considerable outcomes including further follow-on research funding from other sources. For example, all three of the small grants awarded in the first year went on to inform larger research project. The support that the N8 PRP has been able to provide has enabled them to grow and deliver real impact through research.

It has been particularly gratifying for me that we have been able to support front line practitioners and early career researchers. The small grant projects have opened up research opportunities and supported career development across the professions.

A really good example is Dr Charlotte Barlow’s work with colleagues on a small grant project with Merseyside Police researching aspects of coercive control, new laws and the application of training guides to assist the police in working through new legalisation. This has led to new doors being opened for Charlotte and the rest of the team resulting in practice-related impacts which is great to see but would have been hard to realise without the partnership infrastructure and funding. It is also great to see that research like this has resulted in peer reviewed academic articles in notable journals like the British Journal of Criminology and Policing.

I would also say that a key achievement has been involving the people who are going to use the research in the construction of the research as they are more likely to use it and be invested in it.  The small grant project on policing Bitcoin and investigating cryptocurrency with colleagues at GMP is a good example, so too is the work that Julie Jackson of Cheshire Constabulary did with colleagues on the Manipulative Presentation Techniques of control and coercive offenders. They all demonstrate the level of research curiosity at the front line and the value of engaged those who will apply the research in its co-design from the outset. It ensures a much stronger emphasis on sharing, improving and measuring real-world impact of research which aligns well to police priorities and the aim of the wider partnership.

What was the purpose of establishing Small Grants Awards within the N8 PRP framework?

“The police representatives on the Steering Group have been quite vocal about setting priorities which is great as there was some hesitancy in the first year as people found their feet and established relations of trust”

The small grants are all about co-production, the driving philosophy of N8 partnership.  We needed the processes, leavers and incentives to co-produce this research and so we designed-in for each year during November the Innovation Forum which is focused around a particular theme and which is invested in by all partners.

These priority themes have included, for example, cybercrime, domestic abuse and mental health policing and act as an opportunity to bring relevant partners across the public and voluntary sectors together. We decided to offer small grant awards to help steer our efforts towards themes decided by partners.

We offer three to five grants per year depending on the quality of the proposed research and available funds. It is essential that the research should be co-designed and co-delivered by academics and policing practitioners. We have developed a specific process of selection and review which reinforces and emphasises the scalability of research, ensuring that the outcomes are transferrable across multiple police forces.

This process also importantly ensures that the Steering Group is the engine of co-production. It meets quarterly and makes the key award decision on which small grant applications should be funded from those that are shortlisted. The small grant application process is incredibly rigorous but essential for scrutiny of the projects.

We have funded fifteen projects so far, up to £25,000 each. It is a very small amount of money and the academics’ time not funded and matched funding from participating institutions is often leveraged in. So what you get, for a small financial resource is a large commitment from the contributing institutions complemented by a large dose of  enthusiasm, commitment and curiosity on behalf of the team members – both the researchers and practitioners. The result of such collaborations are quite striking.

Who decides which research priorities you progress? And how is the research activity shared across the 11 police forces and Police and Crime Commissioners in the north?

The Steering Group decides on the research activities that are progressed and they agree a set of thematic priorities which have been discussed and planned. They also ensure that there is not an imbalance of work and activity across the partnership.

The police representatives on the Steering Group have been quite vocal about setting priorities which is great as there was some hesitancy in the first year as people found their feet and established relations of trust. But now, the policing partners have a clearer sense of what their research priorities are and through the collaborative and co-productive approach of N8 PRP is a partnership from which they can derive real added value.

The dominant theme over recent years has been around different vulnerabilities. This has been a large overarching theme agreed by the police forces and timely given wider national issues and key priorities.

Last year, the Innovation Forum had a specific focus around mental health policing, again very timely, and as with the vulnerability agenda more broadly requires engagement and cross-partnership working with other organisations. Importantly, the focus of N8 PRP is about ‘policing’ and not simply the ‘police’. By this, I mean that it is about police working with and through other partners, such as victims’ services in the voluntary sector and with healthcare professionals. We have a very clear sense that the issues we are researching are not just police organisational issues but are wider issues about policing that require the police to work with others.

Why has the N8 PRP developed a register of experts? And what is their purpose?

“We have a very clear sense that the issues we are researching are not just police organisational issues but are wider issues about policing that require the police to work with others.”

The purpose of the register was to provide a gateway to specialists so people could work across universities. We needed a way for people to join-up across our eight organisations and provide a resource where people could identify themselves. It is, perhaps, not used as much as it could be but it is great to hear when the register is used and people connect. The Parliamentary Select Committee have used the register  as a resource to identify experts in the north of England which is a really good example of its value. We are now thinking through the opportunities of how the register can be better utilised.

How is the N8 PRP funded?

Initially the N8 PRP was funded through a series of small grants combined with a lot of goodwill. We received some funding from the College of Policing in 2014 and some from the N8 itself which really helped to put the infrastructure in place. The main funding has come from a Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Catalyst Grant which provided funds for a five-year programme of activity, including the small grants and the work of the Innovation Forum as well as the work of the training programme. We were very fortunate to secure a substantial £3m over five years. This core funding has been delivered through the universities and necessitated all partners – police and academic – to put in match-funding commitments and time.

The grant concludes in mid-2020 and we are currently at the stage of discussions about the future sustainability of the partnership beyond 2020. We are initially seeking to secure a model of co-funding and are talking to policing partners and N8 universities about this over the next months.

It is difficult for all partners to make long-term funding commitments at present given political uncertainties. It is a particularly challenging time for universities given uncertainties over Brexit and the Augar Review, which recommended reducing student fees and which, if implemented, will have a significant impact upon universities unless the government funds the shortfall.

What have been the key challenges of collaboration and co-production with police forces and Police and Crime Commissioners?

During the early stages of our development there was a lot of uncertainty about the role of Police and Crime Commissioners as we began  in 2013 and PCCs had just been elected.

Since that time, I am pleased to say that we have mature professional relations with most partner PCCs and some of those that were at first sceptical, now see the value of a collaborative partnership and some have become real champions of the research and work we do.

It is interesting to note that our funding for N8 concludes just prior to the next PCC elections in May next year and during the course of our development we have seen a new structure in Manchester with the election of a Mayor and Deputy Mayor. Both of these changes bring challenges and of course, the electoral cycle PCCs brings an element of uncertainty. But PCCs also provide opportunities to join up work with victim services and community safety initiatives given their wider remit.

The key challenges with working with the police has been the turnover of key Steering Group representatives. Sometimes this is positive as new people bring new ideas and sometimes the relationship changes and requires reinvigorating. As we welcome new police colleagues to the Steering Group who bring new dynamism, it remains a real challenge to keep the continuity of relationships that are forged over time.

What research conducted by N8 PRP has had a positive and direct impact upon policing?

“The positive outcomes of this [Bitcoin] research have been passed to the National Crime Agency and provides evidence of our impact at a local, regional and national levels.”

The Bitcoin research I mentioned, which focused upon investigating, evidencing and prosecuting crimes involving cryptocurrency, was a great example of N8 PRP research having a positive impact upon policing. The positive outcomes of this research have been passed to the National Crime Agency and provides evidence of our impact at a local, regional and national levels. It also shows that the N8 PRP has national strategic importance, and although the partnership is using the north as a lab, our work has national implications.

Reflecting on the journey of N8 PRP thus far and knowing what you now know about establishing police and academic partnerships, what guidance and advice would you offer police officers and academics in the UK and internationally on creating a sustainable research partnership?

You need a strong partnership, a coalition of the willing. Having 11 police forces, 11 PCCs and 8 universities was, and is, an ambitious undertaking, and upon reflection, we may not have gone with the pre-existing N8 structure but this has real opportunities in terms of scale.

I often reflect upon the Scottish Institute for Policing Research (SIPR) which began as a partnership with 8 police forces and now just has one force to collaborate with – which, I am sure, has its own complexities – but is now a different scale of partnership.

I would also say that sustainability of the partnership and developing and managing the infrastructure itself is a key challenge and very time consuming. You need to be keen to get partners embedded and invested in the work and in doing so showing them the possibilities and outcomes of the relationships; ones that would not have been achieve by any one partner on their own.

What is the longer term vision for N8PRP? And what more can it achieve to support the development of policing?

For the longer term, we need to maintain sustainable support for the partnerships’ infrastructure which is very often taken for granted. If you can’t support the infrastructure then all of the other parts just fall away. The infrastructure is essential for the continued success of the partnership but it is not attractive for funding so we need a new model where we try to think about which partners may fund some of the infrastructure.

We also need to enhance our collective future ambitions for the partnership because we have established a way of working which is productive and is working well but to take it the next level and to become a real hub for policing research and knowledge exchange nationally and internationally, we need to develop further and build a reputation for cutting edge research in particular fields.

To do this I believe we need to think about the demands on police and the future of policing as a public service moving forward, and these are linked to issues of vulnerability and the work with partners. We can go on to achieve more by untapping the knowledge and skills within our police forces, increasing our collaborative approach through co-production of research to develop the N8 PRP into a beacon of policing research excellence.

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