Voices from Accenture Public Service

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Amid all the recent electioneering, few of us would have failed to notice the Prime Minister’s proposal to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers over a three-year period. From the viewpoint of the police and public, this is clearly a welcome prospect, especially as everyone knows that police numbers have dwindled over the last decade as the effects of austerity have taken hold. However, turning this proposal into reality – and maximising the resulting benefits – will involve its own challenges, at both a practical and a strategic level.

First, the practical challenges. How do you physically get out there and recruit a net 20,000 new officers? Over three years, this actually translates to bringing in around 50,000 more officers to account for the approx 30,000 that will be lost through natural attrition over that timeframe. Further, once those new officers are recruited, they have to be supplied with the kit they need – from uniforms to communications equipment, and from lockers to cars.

The recruiting process itself also presents challenges. Running an exercise of this scale is a massive and complex undertaking – targeting the right people with the right skills and the right intent, getting them through the door and then ensuring assessment processes are sufficiently rigorous to make sure the right people are recruited. This is not a straightforward task.

Moving on to the strategic challenges, these are – if anything – even more daunting. This recruitment drive creates a golden, once-in-a-generation opportunity to address some of the long-term, systemic issues within UK policing. If it is approached properly, the new 20,000 uplift can be used to achieve a step-change in challenging areas such as ethnic and gender diversity, while also enabling policing to attract some of the digital skills that are so badly needed to help deal with the surge in digitally-enabled crime.

You might think that the answer would lie simply in adding more BME or female officers, or going out and recruiting a large number of ‘techies’. Not only will that not work, but it’s likely to exacerbate the current challenges. Why? Because as with any organ transplant routine, the receiving body must be conditioned to accept the incoming organ, otherwise rejection will occur.  I think the same holds true here, and avoiding rejection requires police forces to get a couple of things right:

Firstly, the right ‘organ’ has to be identified. This means targeting the right kind of BME people, women and ‘techies’ who want to join the police for the right reasons and on the right terms. And that may mean challenging some currently held orthodoxies about policing. If this isn’t done, you risk the wrong kind of people applying, which will take more time to sift through the recruitment process and will result in poor conversion rates. And for those that do get through, the risk is that they don’t stay for any length of time because the whole experience wasn’t quite what they had imagined.

Secondly, the ‘body’ must be conditioned to accept the ‘organ’. That means creating the right kind of conditions to accept and, importantly, retain the new incoming recruits, including the right leadership, values and culture. This could involve changing some working practices to accommodate the needs and desires of the new recruits. If this isn’t done, then once again, the risk is that the new recruits don’t stay.

Ideally, forces would get all of this prepared in advance of starting any recruiting. However, political pressures will drive a need to show results quickly. The risk with pressing ahead at pace is a disjointed approach where different forces move at different speeds and don’t give sufficient consideration to the potential wider benefits on offer. If existing recruitment practices are employed, there’s also a risk of recruiting more of the same of what we have at the moment, which will exacerbate the current challenges and miss this golden opportunity.

What’s needed is a coherent national strategy for recruiting the right additional 20,000 officers – as well as starting to address some of the existing challenges. This strategy needs to be defined at the national level, coordinated at a regional level and implemented locally. The approach should include the use of available data and analytics to identify and encourage the right recruits and also needs to ensure that the values, leadership and culture within policing are such that these new recruits want to stay and make a difference. The good news is that this has been done very successfully before at a similar scale and with similar challenges.

A few years ago, the British Army was losing significant numbers of soldiers and was finding it difficult to attract new recruits. Karmarama, part of Accenture, was engaged to help the Army think through what kind of people they were looking for and what kind of culture would attract and retain new recruits. Using data and analytics to target the right groups from the right areas, they created a national advertising campaign focused on the theme of ‘Belonging’. This resulted in the right messages being sent to the right people, which meant a large number of relevant applications and a conversion rate which was at a level they’d never seen before. As a result, the number of recruits into the Army went up significantly, with no dilution of quality.

The message is clear: the 20,000-officer uplift offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address some of the current challenges UK policing is facing, but only if it’s done in the right way. I believe that needs to include consideration of changes that will be needed in culture and leadership across policing to create a body that’s capable of accepting and retaining the new recruits. Otherwise, we’ll simply get more bodies – and not more lasting value for the citizen.

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