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My 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