2 Jan 2020

Systems Thinking and Policing

Dear Gary Griffith,

Rather than ‘fight tooth and nail’ with your critics, who are obviously aware that you are failing in your responsibilities as Commissioner of Police (CoP) and as the top ‘crimefighter’, won’t it be better for you to ‘man up’ and recognise the nature of the beast you face? There is no need for you to reinvent the wheel – most of the work has been done for you already.

Police work is what is known as a ‘wicked problem’. Rittel& Webber (1973) identified the following 10 characteristics of a wicked problem:

  1. No definitive formulation.
  2. No stopping rules.
  3. Solutions are not true or false, but better or worse.
  4. No immediate and no ultimate test of a solution.
  5. Solution is a “one-shot operation’; no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Do not have a fixed number (or describable) of potential solutions, no set of permissible operations to employ.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be a symptom of another problem (introducing complexity).
  9. Wicked problems can be explained in numerous ways. Choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s solution (More on this later).
  10. No right to be wrong (planners are liable for consequences of actions).

This brings me to the current problem-solving culture within the police service:

1.   there is a historical predominance of traditional hard systems thinking (HST) for problem solving.

2.   A culture of evidence-based decisions which place emphasis on numerical data and statistical validity such as randomised controlled trials (RCT).

3.   Often impossible to define problems, their causes and effects in absolute terms required.

4.   Police managers are increasingly required to respond to high variety, complex problem contexts.

5.   Low variety problem-solving approaches such as HST may not be sufficient in new environments.

6.   There needs to be greater understanding of systems’ contexts.

7.    Whole-systems approaches seek to balance HST, with appropriate emphasis on ‘softer’ problem structuring method e.g. SSM and VSM.

(Adapted from Newsome and Wiggett (2014)).

Crime fighting requires ‘systems thinking’: the ability to view the interconnectedness of the entire “criminal system” inclusive of the police force, in a holistic manner, and looking to see where applying leverage can have the most effect upon the entire system. It means taking into consideration different perspectives, from different stakeholders, applying methodology instead of methods and recognising the limitations imposed by the system itself and that sometimes there are no solutions.

Newsome and Wiggett (2014) identified 10 characteristics of systems thinking force:

1.   has clarity of purpose, derived from the service users’ perspectives (i.e. the public)

2.   adopts a whole systems approach, where interdependencies are understood.

3.   Has staff that understand the purpose, and their service responses are flexible to help achieve that purpose.

4.   understand that the greatest influences on performance and service are determined by the system.

5.   Understand the implications of setting boundaries within a system, and seeks to engage the whole system and make an improvement.

6.   Uses a variety of measurement and information to understand system performance, so as to identify learning and secure improvement.

7.   Understand the variety of its demand and how services can be optimised to satisfy this.

8.   Trust staff to apply informed professional judgement in support of achieving purpose.

9.   Has a culture of learning and continuous improvement where staff are empowered and equipped to understand and improve performance.

10.Respects and encourages the staff’s sense of vocation, and recognises the value of this in improving their well-being, commitment and whole system performance.

Traditional policing methods will have a high probability of failure in a modern society. That is not to say that they don’t have their place. But the police force must evolve, from the perceived “brute squad” to a highly effective thinking and performing unit. It will take a lot to make these changes – systems have a way of resisting change. You may want to investigate Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and Viable Systems Model (VSM), a combination of which has been identified by Kinloch et al (2008) as a more effective tool.

If you want to succeed, rather than further alienating your detractors, identify the core problem you face, which is that your current police force is not effective in its present form and drastic changes are needed. Begin there.