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Does Size Really Matter?

Although this is a subjective matter, I’m going to with: Yes.

I’m talking about police agency size, of course, as in does the size of a police service affect its ability to incorporated evidence-based approaches?

The simple answer is: Yes, but not in the usual way that people might think.

We live in a world in which bigger is all too frequently seen as better. I would argue this is no less the case with police service size, where bigger is often seen to mean more resources, more people, more opportunities, more technology, more programs and, perhaps most importantly, more funding. But is bigger necessarily a good thing when it comes to the question of trying to effect system-wide change? After all, evidence-based policing is a holistic approach to the question of how best to go about the business of policing. It requires a fundamental shift in how agencies – at every level of an organization - make decisions on important questions centred on internal and external effectiveness and efficiency.

Now ask yourself, what is easier to move, an elephant or a chihuahua?

For many within policing, particularly those who work in smaller services with fewer resources, this might seem to be a counter-intuitive argument. But think about your own experiences of working with larger, often more bureaucratic agencies, and you’ll see the wisdom of this. Bigger agencies can represent black holes in the EBP universe in which ideas go in, never to be seen again. Here’s just one example:

I was approached by an Inspector of a large agency for assistance with evaluating a program. I talked extensively with the Sereant running the program and mapped out what could be done to assist them. I then got research resources to help out and contacted a senior police leader in that organization for his support. Within one day I was told the request had been approved. Then, two weeks later, I was told the whole thing was to be scrapped without any further explanation. Apparently, the decision was made elsewhere not to support the program. Weeks of work down the drain.

Why, despite the lure of fields of peanuts, is the policing elephant sometimes so hard to move? Several reasons. One has to do with the centralized nature of decision-making within police services, wherein senior command staff make all of the significant decisions (and in too many instances, many of the minor ones as well). Research suggests that institutions with more decentralized decision-making - where leaders delegate aspects of decision-making - tend to be more strategically flexible – that is, they can adjust quickly to changing circumstances and innovative trends (Bock, Opsahl, George and Gann 2017). Therefore, the reverse must also be true: centralized decision-making renders organizations less strategically flexible and therefore less innovative. Another factor is the hierarchical nature of policing which, within larger services, tends to be more strictly enforced. As a result, people within such institutions can be highly risk averse (Mori 2009). Willingness to take risks is, of course, central to creating a culture of learning (Syed 2015). To give one example of risk aversion:

Myself and colleague Craig Bennell sought to replicate a study we thought was fatally flawed and therefore reached out to several of the agencies who were in initial study. We asked for two things: the data that had already been released to other researchers (basic stats on deployments) and the opportunity to interview members of the units studied. We received immediate positive responses from the medium-sized agencies. The largest agency turned us down flat with no justification provided. When we followed up on why they wouldn’t release the data - after all, they had provided it to other researchers and it was published and a matter or public record - we were told that a bureaucratic ‘rule’ (that no one had seemed to have heard of previously) prohibited releasing the same data to us.

By way of contrast, I have worked extensively with small and medium sized agencies where the experiences are very different. Often what these services lack in resources, they more than make up for in enthusiasm and willingness to participate at various levels of the organization. For example, one of the smallest agencies we work with (fewer than 100 sworn members) is one of the most active. We are currently engaged in at least 4 different projects with them, and each project entails members of that service being actively involved in some capacity so that they can ‘skill up.’ This agency, by the way, has no full-time crime analyst. Another highly active agency has just over 200 sworn members and insists on training not only their executive members on the basics of EBP, but also all of their frontline decision-makers, so that this group can help foster change throughout their organization.

Whereas decisions about conducting or using research in larger services must often make their way up a byzantine chain of command – complete with chutes and ladders – smaller organizations can often be more nimble when it comes to making such decisions. Indeed, I once got an important four-year project greenlit in the ladies’ room at an event. I’ve also enjoyed a long and fruitful working relationship with one police service where they mistakenly gave me a passkey. I have used this key on occasion to run up from a meeting ‘on the floor’ into the Deputy Chief’s office to ask for support for a new project. This agency too has invested in training individuals in EBP at various levels of their organization and is working towards ensuring that good ideas leave the ‘shop floor’ for the Executive Suite.

So, yes, when it comes to trying to embed EBP, size matters. If you work for a smaller agency and think, 'it can't be done here,' remember: flatter, less rigidly hierarchical institutions are much more likely to create and sustain the conditions necessary to creating a culture of learning within their organizations. Then, once you've remembered that, push on!

*For anyone interested in relevant research, see:

Haveman, H. 1993. ‘Organizational Size and Change: Diversification in the Savings and Loan Industry after Deregulation’ Administrative Science Quarterly, 38(1): 20-50.

Amah, E., Weje, M., and Dosunmu, R. 2013. ‘Size and Organizational Effectiveness: Maintaining a Balance.’ Advances in Management & Applied Economics, 3(5): 115-123.

Marx, T. 2017. ‘The Impacts of Company Size on Leadership.’ Management and Organizational Studies, 4(1): 82-89.

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