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The same old rhetoric, just another place

2+2=5My sister phoned me the other day in great excitement.  She’d just met a former criminology student from the University of Northampton, and she had an awful lot to say about it.  She wasn’t in her hometown and had asked directions from a stranger to the river embankment.  Having visited the embankment, she returned to town only to bump into the stranger again who enquired whether she managed to find it. They ended up chatting, my sister can do a lot of that, and she found out that the stranger was a police officer.  My sister asked whether she knew me, why she would ask that I have no idea, it seems that she has formulated some notion in her head that all police officers must know each other or at least know of each other.  This is the bit that my sister got so animated about, yes, the stranger did know me, I’d taught her at the University, and she was now in a budding police career.  Apparently, I had done so much to help her.  Now I don’t know about being that helpful and I suspect that many of my colleagues played a part in her success story, but it reminded me about what it is that we do and aspire to do as lecturers.

Whilst waiting to play my part in talking to school children the other day I started to read a new edition of a seminal piece of work on policing, The Politics of the Police (Bowling et al., 2019).  The preface alone makes interesting reading and in ‘mentioning populist political reactions towards crime’, ‘zero tolerance of the marginalised and outsiders’ and ‘laissez-faire economics’ that promotes individual interests, my mind turned to the managerialist ideals that have dogged policing for over three decades.  Those ideals saw the introduction of performance indicators, targets and the inevitable policing by objectives (Hallam, 2000), that resulted in some quite appalling manipulation of data and a diminution of service rather than an improvement.  The problem was that the targets were never achievable and were simply put in place for managers to simplify the social world over which they had no control.  What didn’t get measured, because it never could be, were the myriad of tasks that police officers and staff undertake daily.  Dealing with people with mental illness, searching for missing persons and dealing with minor disturbances are an example of just a few such tasks.  Bowling et al. (op cit.) subscribe to the notion that the job of the police is to help maintain social order, an ideal that does not lend itself to measurement. Counting the number of crimes committed in an area or the number of detected crimes is only an indication of failure, not success.

How does that policing narrative fit in with my opening paragraph? The former student was not an ideal student from a managerialist viewpoint.  She didn’t attain so called ‘good grades’, I’m not even sure if she fully completed her studies.  In terms of performance measurement, she doesn’t even feature and yet she, like so many others we have seen in Criminology, has flourished.  Whilst concentrating on ‘retention and progression’ and ‘fails’ and ‘good grades’ we neglect the very reason we exist.  Just as in policing where the figures were pored over by managerialist who had not slightest notion of the reality of the social world, so too are we in danger of simply seeking pleasing statistics to keep the wolves from the door because explanations of real success and failure are too complex for managers to understand or manage.

Imagine a world where the police just helped maintain social order, where probation were not plagued by notions of payment by results, where patients were just seen in A&E in a reasonable time and where lecturers just opened the minds of students and allowed them to think for themselves.  Imagine the time and expense that could be saved and reinvested in providing real service and dare I say it ‘value for money’ if we stopped gathering meaningless data.  Imagine managers casting aside the shackles of neoliberalist ideals and managing people, not using numbers as an indication of failure and impending doom.  We can but dream, but my reality, as I’m sure is the reality of many of my colleagues, is the success stories that I occasionally hear and can reminisce about.  No amount of number crunching can take that away and nor will it ever provide evidence of success or failure.

Bowling, B. Reiner, R. and Sheptycki, J. (2019) The Politics of the Police. (5th ed.) Oxford: OUP.

Hallam, S. (2000) Effective and Efficient Policing: Some Problems with the Culture of Performance, in Marlow, A. and Loveday, B. (eds.) After MacPherson: Policing after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Lyme Regis: Russell House

‘Leaving that to one side’ – Managing the too difficult

travis_movement_2_adjI love horology, my passion is antique grandfather clocks. My pride and joy stands in the hallway of my home.  Lovingly restored, it makes me smile when it strikes on the hour.  Each strike reminds me of the time and effort I put into getting it to work.  I’m reminded of the trials and tribulations of having to understand how it worked, what was wrong with it and how to fix it.  I have become quite adept at fixing clocks, I understand them, I know them.  Each part of the clock has a specific job, each part is dependent on another, each part makes it a clock that works.  From the smallest cog to the largest, take any one of them away and the clock no longer functions.  It is the same for all time pieces, whether they are driven by weights, springs, or battery.  They all have intrinsic parts that make them function, that are inter dependent.

My clock, to anyone else, is a grand functioning timepiece. They would have little or no knowledge of the inner workings, save perhaps, they would know there were inner workings.  Perhaps too complicated to understand, the workings would have no significance to them unless they owned the clock and then only if the clock didn’t function, kept stopping or perhaps was running a little slow or a little fast owing to some fault.

Compare the clock to an organisation, the workings are the departments, units or what ever you want to call them.  The manager is the owner, the person that winds the clock up, occasionally ensures it is cleaned, even serviced, they make sure it works and works correctly.  The manager might decide they no longer wish the clock to chime and they have that part of the mechanism removed. Perhaps they no longer want the clock to have a second hand, that too can be removed, even the minute hand.  It would still be recognisable as a time piece.  Organisations go through such changes all the time. Who though would the manager call on to make these alterations?  Who would advise what is best? A specialist of course, someone who knows the inner workings of the clock, who understands how it works, who understands that some pieces can be removed and that others cannot.  Well not if it is still to function as a time piece rather than a useless lump of furniture in the corner.  Of course, if the inner workings of the clock could talk, each would be able to tell you what their function is.  If you want to make alterations to the clock, you need to understand how it functions, not just that it functions.

Understanding what the right thing to do is often difficult for managers in organisations particularly when dealing with change.  They pride themselves on seeing the bigger picture, sometimes they do, sometimes it’s simply a mirage.  And like departments in organisations, the chime, the second hand and the minute hand, with all their associated mechanisms would argue that they are needed, that somehow the clock would fail if they were not there.  The manager believes this is not the case and dismisses such protests.  But such are the intricacies of the inner workings that knowing what will cause something to fail and what won’t is often difficult to discern. When an expert tells you that a cog in the timepiece is failing do you leave it to one side or address it? Do you bury your head in the sand and hope the problem will go away?  A good manager listens, a good manager discerns what is important and what is not.  A good manager recognises that there are times when understanding the implications of a faulty cog are more important than the grand vision (or mirage).  But that means sometimes getting into the workings of the clock, being shown how it functions and understanding what the problem really is.  If you want to maintain some sort of time piece, as a manager, you cannot afford to simply ‘leave things to one side’. Ignoring issues because you don’t understand them or you only see the mirage will leave you in a void where time has stopped.

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