“Policing Matters think that the current way of doing business has served its time and purpose. It has arguably delivered results – but there have been some significant positive and negative costs to the approach. “Thinking beyond the traditional” is now more necessary than ever before for the new generation of leaders charged with delivering optimum performance to the communities they serve.

The qualitative and the quantitative debate is competitive; fully understanding intended and unintended consequences of organisational policy is vital; and the engagement with communities at both a rational and emotional level is necessarily complex. Binary thinking – ‘doing more of this and less of that’ – is a language that does not take the debate forward in any constructive manner.

We hope, therefore, that the following article by Simon Guilfoyle further whets your appetite around this topic. Simon will be speaking at our “Leading Ethical Performance” Conference at Oxford University, but agreed to pen a few words on a topic that he is aptly qualified to speak about (see Intelligent Policing). Your views and comments, as always are more than welcome.” Dr Mark Kilgallon


Can the Police Performance Mindset Ever Really Disengage from Targets?

On 29th June 2010, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that all policing targets were to be scrapped forthwith. Since then, forces have made varying degrees of progress away from this well-established element of police performance management. The questions remain however – how easy is it to completely (and suddenly) disengage from target-driven performance management, and what else can police forces look towards instead?

From my own research, experience and professional interactions with several UK police forces it is apparent that the notion of completely abandoning numerical targets is easier said than done. Although the Home Secretary has publicly given space and consent for their removal, targets are so ingrained within police performance norms and organisational psyche that in many cases they still proliferate at multiple layers. I also sense widespread fear of a ‘void’ if they are totally removed.

The consequences of today’s less overt, but deeply institutionalised, target culture are widely-recognised, yet this culture still persists. Instances of dysfunctional behaviour designed to meet targets (such as trawling the margins for detections, or making ‘easy’ arrests) are well-documented in the press and wider literature. Furthermore, target-driven performance management is known to distort priorities, corrupt the integrity of data (such as crime figures) and can have an adverse impact on the relationship between police and public. It also leads to impaired service delivery and a system design that is prone to sub optimisation and disproportionate internal focus.


For me, a major part of the solution lies in uncoupling measures from targets. As with the temperature and oil gauges, speedometer and rev counter on a car, it is imperative that we use multifaceted measurements to help understand how different parts of the system are performing. Understanding the interconnectivity between these measures and the overall context surrounding the data derived from them is also critical. This way we are able to determine the capability of the system, identify changes and trends (or ‘signals’) and make decisions predicated on a verified evidence base. Numerical targets actively interfere with these processes and cause the police service to lose sight of what its ‘purpose’ looks like from the service user’s perspective.

The challenge for police leaders at every level is to first recognise the harm caused by target-driven performance management, then to look beyond this blunt and outdated tool towards a more intelligent and mature assessment of performance measurement. The mindset around targets cannot simply be switched off, but the first step is to acknowledge it exists –  without apportioning blame – before true disengagement may occur. The next stage is to ensure that the targets approach is constantly challenged and superseded by contextualised, purpose-derived measures, alongside the adoption of a ‘whole system’ perspective. I argue that such an approach represents a superior philosophy of performance management capable of eliciting the true picture of organisational functionality and performance –  which is exactly what is sought by those who advocate targets, isn’t it?

Simon Guilfoyle is a serving Police Inspector, systems thinker, blogger and author of the book, Intelligent Policing.

At Policing Matters we want to further raise the debate around ethical policing performance. For this reason we are holding a conference at Harris Manchester College Oxford on the 8th of July with “Ethical Policing Performance” as the topic under consideration – find out more.

Categories: LeadershipPolicing

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