Learning from Evidence: Mission Impossible? Review by Emma Williams

#CCCUconf17: A whistle stop tour by Emma Williams

Emma Williams, Deputy Director The Canterbury Centre for Policing Research

Last week we held the second annual conference at The Canterbury Police Research Centre (CPRC) at CCCU. It was a time for celebration as it marked the first anniversary of our centre and whilst writing up the annual report in preparation for the first advisory board meeting we reflected on what we have managed to achieve in our first year. Actually this made us feel very proud indeed.

The theme of the conference was ‘Learning from Evidence: Mission impossible?’ and as ever we were very keen to create an environment that was not only welcoming of police practitioners and academics but also to offer an agenda which was as much about academic research and theory as it was about practitioner experience and reality. This as most of you know is absolutely our ethos at the centre. After holding an incredibly successful event last year on stress in policing, I was concerned about the ability to create something so special again (and so it seemed was my head of school but he only voiced this post event). However, my worries were soon quashed as the conference opened. The atmosphere was relaxed, full of smiling faces, engaging and welcome to challenge and different ideas - which is exactly what we had hoped for. So therefore, perhaps not mission impossible more mission ‘coming along slowly’.

We are also lucky and honored to have such a practitioner and academic focused support network in the centre. I won’t mention them all as they know who they are and how grateful we are to them but it was lovely to see speakers coming back to the event from last year both as attendees and speakers. The support they have given us over the year is not to be underestimated -  pushing some of them well out of their comfort zone to the point where we ask them to speak themselves. We also had a wealth of well wishes from those that could not attend this year which is both generous and reassuring that people want to be involved in our work.

All of the papers were excellent and, as said above presented a true and honest reflection of the views of those speaking. However, and again this is what we wanted, there were some key challenges in every direction!

  • The academic papers challenged each other
  • The practitioners challenged the research and used reality to highlight that sometimes academic findings ‘just aren’t like that in real life’.
  • The academics also challenged the practitioners
  • Local practitioners challenged each other
  • Practitioners challenged the pracademics

However, whilst I am highlighting these challenges, despite these different ‘languages’ and views, within the context of the conference environment it was comfortable and challenge was received openly. This is an absolute credit to the type of environment we have ALL created at these two events. Plus, this highlights how much we all care and really ultimately want the best for policing… I think!

The one glaring overarching theme that came through for me at the conference this year was LEGITIMACY. Despite the differing takes that we all have on this issue it seems, to me, that this term captures so much of what was voiced last Wednesday and Thursday and this is worth exploring.

Whilst defining the many complex meanings of legitimacy is not for here, (I will save that for my PhD!), the presence of the concept was clear during both days. It came out in different formats and for different reasons in the papers we heard but, nonetheless, the notion of legitimacy was key to the majority of them without it being mentioned explicitly. I will do my best to explain this using the themes coming from the different speakers. So here goes my attempt!

What constitutes knowledge in policing has been widely debated and relates to the good old argument about research methods and the application of science to policing. The majority of us believe that the best evidence we have available in order to make a decision can be based on a number of factors ranging from professional experience to the use of findings arising from a randomised control trial.

It seems, however, and this was beautifully articulated in @nathanconstable’s blog following the conference, that the language used by some academics in this space can negate the value of experience and human voice. This can result in a perception by practitioners that their voice is not legitimate enough to be considered as knowledge and that there is no space for it within this sterile and controlled environment. The perceived absence of the practitioner’s voice as legitimate then impacts on the legitimacy of the evidence based concept itself as it is seen as separate to those involved in it and not inclusive.

As Professor Rob Briner (Queen Mary’s University) so clearly summed up, evidence based practice is not about certainty it is about a process. A process which involves learning, reflecting and not making experience and professional practice opaque by science. It is the use of multiple sources to inform a better outcome – and it is all of these different sources that should all be considered as legitimate in the right context.

Always a contentious issue right? Well it shouldn’t be. This was mentioned by a number of speakers, as was the impact of not giving practitioners a sense of legitimacy in relation to their voice in all areas of police work. Dr Les Graham from Durham University described this perfectly in his work on staff surveys and the importance of using and operationalising findings to instigate change. For managers in the policing environment to recognise the legitimacy of their staff and hear what they have to say about issues effecting them is vital to productivity, officer wellbeing (as discussed by Dr Ian Hesketh) and the adoption of new programmes (such as EBP) in policing. Do not ever just capture voice. We need to use it, legitimise it and action it.

Ian also described the use of social media to capture this voice. For a number of reasons police officers are not exposed to the physical contact that they had pre austerity and access to social media for many is a way of them being heard. If researchers and others really want to consider the voice of officers and help them develop a sense of legitimacy in this space, using some of this information is a great way to go.

Refreshingly DCC Andy Rhodes talked of exactly this – calling these voices and such feedback as a ‘wakeup call’ to use and reflect on. This is essentially about making people and their opinions feel legitimate in their own work place.

I make a huge leap here by linking the papers of Rick Muir from the Police Foundation and Rob Briner. Rick talked about some of the limiting factors within police culture which might affect the success of change as he described some of the outcomes of police work that are traditionally valued as a success. He questioned how a fast moving, reactive, performance driven organisation can effectively create the space required for learning. This is so clearly linked to what Rob Briner described as the police reaching for solutioneering – the can do culture, the need to quickly deal with an issue and help fix it. Actually he explained, being evidence based is not about having fixed solutions it is concerned with being more effective at solving longer term problems and using ideas that might work. There is no certainty.

Currently though, as Rick stated, policing refers to perceived legitimate, transparent information (usually in the form of statistics (arrests, stops, JD rates etc.) to quickly prove to someone (HMIC for example) that something is being done and achieved. In reality these figures are not outcomes, are rarely focused on long term issues and usually fail to consider any effective problem definition. In fact, they can encourage solutioneering. Michael Brown’s paper on understanding this in the context of mental health and policing absolutely exemplified this issue. Don we really understand our problems?

Another, more effective form of reviewing, what constitutes, good police performance needs to be developed and legitimised by management to really support an environment capable of reflection and learning. Indeed, this related to a couple of papers raising the issue of officers ‘doing the right thing’ as opposed to doing what is expected of them in order to deliver the numerical outcome. This was an issue that was picked up from Roger Pegram’s talk in relation to some management styles stifling the use of evidence and trying new options.

The breadth of police roles is not covered here. What this refers to in this blog is people within their force who try and make this stuff work. Like Roger and Rob Flanagan. Rob talked of his experiences since being made the lead for innovation in Lancashire, with complete support from his DCC. Despite this support and despite some incredible examples of the changes he has influenced, he believes he is not seen as having a legitimate role in his force, my some. This has manifested itself in comments at work and very publicly on social media. Simply his role, as driving forward change and identifying creative ideas, is not generically valued across his force.

You can apply this sense of legitimacy to a range of police issues and I think I make the inference that this also relates to change/reform in policing. Referring back to Rob Briner’s notion of solutioneering, I compare this to Mike Rowe’s paper on long term change in New Zealand and how, after identifying some long term issues they set a ten-year change agenda. Imagine that - being given ten years to deal with a review and its recommendations. This alone is another blog, but how can all police roles be considered as legitimate to focus on when fast time reviews and delivery of change expectations result in shifting limited resources around to ‘solutioneer’ on the subject at hand. Fascinating paper from Mike Rowe also stressing the importance of getting people on board as did David Wilkinson in his paper on change – all highlighting organisational justice and identity.

‘Leadership is action not position’ – Gareth Stubbs. Leadership was a theme that ran through the entire conference. It became clear in a number of the papers – Rob Briner’s, Andy Rhodes, Gareth’s – that maybe. over asking what style and type of leadership is seen as legitimate in policing we need to ask, do we need different styles that are required in different contexts.

Gareth described leadership itself as a wicked problem which is poorly defined and hard to measure. In fact, if we recognise that there is no one size leadership style that fits all for policing we may enable the development of a learning environment amongst leaders. What style worked where, when and with whom…. Reflective leadership is perhaps required.

Finally, I mention Dr Jill Russell’s who raised the importance of good leaders bringing people together to create a joined up approach where shared values and agreed outcomes are supported and encouraged. Jill used CC Ian Hopkin’s communications methods over recent Manchester events as an example of this display of leadership. Her analysis highlighted some of what the other speakers voiced about the need for the complex issues the police increasingly deal with, to be seen as joint problems and not just focused in the police domain. Perhaps indeed there is no one legitimate leadership style but many and we need to celebrate and learn from that.

All in all, it was a really fantastic two days – I have questions / thoughts / increased desire to do LOTS of research (of course I am an academic and there is always research to be done).

Please join us on our learning journey – get involved and if any of you reading this fancy taking on a blog about any of these issues please guest for us on our blog site. We welcome practitioner views particularly. Tell us your experiences please!! That’s how we all learn!

We very much hope to make available the presentations in due course on our website 


Connect with us

Last edited: 09/07/2019 16:38:00