A Proposition that Will Scare the Hell out of Some People
Updated: Jul 29, 2019
The other week I was engaged in a discussion with a frontline officer on the interminable question of how do you get research project ideas up from the shop floor into the Executive suite. My response was simple: unless your organization has a built-in mechanism for doing that (ie. an independent person tasked with that very job or an ideas 'bin' people can submit to that will be received by the higher echelons) then you should identify people within and outside your organization with sufficient influence to be able to move your ideas up the ladder.
The response was a mild version of horror and a bit of offense at that very idea. Why? Because, as I was told, "policing is still paramilitary" and there's a "chain of command." Here's me, the evil interloper, advocating for people to subvert the very foundations of policing.
Yes, I am aware of both of those things and the fact there are many operational and administrative situations where that chain is critical to effective organizational decision-making. However, I am also aware of two other very important things. First, people in policing organizations already do this* (if very quietly). And second, the chain of command is often the very reason why good ideas never rise up the ladder. There are at least two significant reasons for why the chain - at least with respect to research ideas - can sometimes be better seen as the "roadblocks of command."
1. Middle manager syndrome - this is a well documented phenomenon within many different types of organizations. The higher one climbs the occupational ladder, the more risk averse one typically becomes**. Simply put: most organizations reward conservative decision-makers who risk little (and thus expose their agencies to fewer potential liabilities) than risk-takers. Conversely, most dynamic, highly successful organizations (at least in the private sector) are founded by individuals who were willing to take calculated risks and to learn from mistakes. While the latter may seem like an unrealistic environment to try to situate the institution of policing, the solution shouldn't be to plant one's self at the far end of the other side of the spectrum and refuse to budge.
2. The more rings in the ladder the slower the speed of lift - yes, I know I badly mixed my metaphors, but you get the point. Every single decision-maker in a chain has a portfolio of decisions that have to be made, thus inevitably slowing the process, often to a point of complete inertia. I was once asked by an executive officer for a report I had submitted to a middle-manager in his organization more than a year previously. It had just sat on a desk for the entire time, meaning that necessary changes to the program weren't being made.
There is also a third factor and it's the dirty little secret of evidence based policing: many managers and senior staff are not well versed in the basics of scientific research and, rather than admitting a lack of knowledge, simply come up with reasons to say no. This is a bit silly, if completely understandable. It's silly because no one person can possibly be an expert in all things. For example, I know very little about business administration; however, there are many people within the policing ranks that are well educated and highly experienced in this. I used to know pretty much zippo about supervision or leadership (I've had to work to catch up), and most police officers in middle and senior ranks who have received education and/or training in these topics know a lot more about the theories and practice of leadership than I do. That's how knowledge works.
So, if this is the problem, what do I propose? That organizations seeking to become evidence-based create a role within their service for an "ideas person", someone whose responsibility is to:
1. help people develop viable ideas into workable project proposals;
2. screen out ideas that are not politically, organizationally, administratively, financially, legally or otherwise viable;
2a. and provide feedback to those whose ideas have been rejected so they know why.
3. champion ideas that are workable
4. find resources (both internal and, where necessary, external) to turn proposals into realizable projects;
5. educate middle and senior ranks on what is and is not do-able from a research point of view;
5a. and educate on the importance of methodological rigor (to avoid crappy design which is the hallmark of many a policing and community safety project);
And this is the truly SCARY part: this person should operate outside of the chain of command - that is, they should be an independent voice that can carry ideas from the shop floor to the Executive suite.
Okay, you are now free to clutch your pearls, should you feel so inclined.
*My thanks to the officer who spoke up and said that informally people do these types of things anyway and the edifice of policing hasn't exactly crumbled.
**This special form of paralysis manifests in some interesting ways. I recall one routine decision about a hiring deadline (what time of the day the competition should close at) being sent to the office of a Deputy Chief for a decision because nobody else wanted to make it.