Plodding response to reform: Former senior police officer Alison Halford accuses the force's top brass of obstructing proposals for better management

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The Independent Online
I WAS delighted to be asked to appear in a live Panorama debate last week on the Sheehy report into the structure of policing. In the studio, as I watched the non-meeting of minds in that crucible of confusion and contradictory perceptions, I became aware of an intriguing coincidence.

Sheehy had been put to work by Kenneth Clarke, the same Home Secretary who was a respondent in my equality action, and at the same time as I was being pressed to settle the case. That was in May 1992, when my equal opportunities hearing started to roll and the public came to learn of the unseemly conduct of senior officers in dispute with each other and to discover unpleasant features of managerial practice within a large force.

It seemed to me that many of Sheehy's 272 recommendations mirrored my own attempts to institute change as a senior manager in my force. How clearly I remember being torn apart for daring to suggest in 1985 that fixed-term contracts were the only way of coping with the haemorrhaging of manpower through highly lucrative medical pensions. My recommendation to introduce open and continuous staff appraisals had also been ignored - as had my plea to place greater value on the work performed by our civilian support staff and to widen their responsibilities.

As the cameras rolled, I witnessed the unprecedented spectacle of chief officers huddling together for warmth with those they command, the Police Federation and the Superintendents' Association, in collective and total condemnation of Sheehy. Amazingly, the chief constables' representative made no attempt to make a meaningful rebuttal of the report's strong attack on the Association of Chief Police Officers' (ACPO) managerial shortcomings.

Nothing materialised other than an arrogant refusal even to contemplate the need for change. Perhaps the double whammy of both the Sheehy report and its close bedfellow for change, the Home Office's White Paper on altering the balance of power between the chiefs, their police authorities and the Home Secretary, had thrown them completely.

The Sheehy enquiry has opened a Pandora's Box: raising the lid on archaic practices and allowing numerous 'evils' to fly forth in the form of recommendations destined to ruin the carefully protected empires of the police.

Is Sheehy's report really a curse on the police or should he and his team be congratulated for probing and exposing the soft underbelly of antiquated management practice?

When I became an Assistant Chief Constable in 1983, I attempted, with the help of experts, to introduce better management skills and a more caring way of managing staff. Frequently I was thwarted - and so my sympathy lies with the rank and file, who have been badly let down by the bosses.

The root of the problem lies with ACPO's awesome power to transfer, promote or hold back. Rarely challenged by subordinates, many chief constables have never learnt the skills needed to counsel, teach, lead, listen and to manage. A chief's style is to 'boss' or 'order' and there is often a yawning gulf between his perceptions and that of those he commands. The art of giving feedback and appraising subordinates equally is still alien to some.

As a new personnel manager at Merseyside, I was faced with almost half the inspectors having been promised promotion, which was never in the force's gift. Officers who had passed all the hurdles, including an expensively organised promotion selection board, wallowed in the 'promotion pool', hardly daring to breathe, still less to make any positive managerial decision lest it jeopardise that elusive chance of promotion. No standard selection criteria existed, feedback as to the reason for pass or failure was never given and no training was undertaken by assessors. Promotion was just an expensive lottery.

Annual days off through sickness stood at 23.4 per capita; pounds 3.2 million of the entire budget was spent on medical retirements. Medical review was not required until the elapse of at least 90 days; officers had been sick for two years on full pay without anyone querying the situation. Sick visits by supervisors were rarely undertaken, even when malingering was suspected.

When the police brass band was dispersed to return more officers to street duties, nine out of 28 took medical retirement and did not return to operational duty. Not one senior manager, apart from myself, seemed to care. One maverick constable, annoyed with a decision of a boss, effectively hung up his boots by running up sick leave of 904 days in 12 years of service - all on full pay. The regulations protected 'sick' officers to such an extent that they were untouchable by management and yet no one seemed to possess the will to change the regulations. Those few officers who fell foul of discipline were able to use medical retirement to escape punishment.

There was no commitment to job rotation or career planning and the appraisal system was irrelevant and discredited. Since appraisal interviews were held yearly, supervisors knew very little about their officers. The debtor, the alcoholic, the gambler or the wife-beater was rarely identified, which led to job deployment errors. Accepting that privacy is sacrosanct is fine, but not when the discipline department then had to deal with the result of sensationally unsuitable postings. Pity the gambler who was unwittingly given charge of a department where money changed hands. He received a custodial sentence. More fortunate transgressors left with their medical pensions before disciplinary action could be brought. Such were the rules of engagement.

The inability of some senior officers to counsel and give honest performance feedback manifested itself all too frequently. An extreme example was of an inspector who had been given glowing appraisals by his divisional boss for seven years. Tiring of promotion rejections, he challenged the system . He could not understand why headquarters kept turning him down. It fell to me to hear his complaint. On the confidential part of his appraisal, the one acted on by headquarters, support for the man had been completely withdrawn. Such duplicity by his chief superintendent took my breath away. My decision to be honest with him sadly backfired: he reported sick with a recurrence of an old injury and retired hurt. A waste of an officer's talents, but we both had the satisfaction of knowing that for once a senior officer had grasped the nettle of painful feedback, even though the outcome was unsatisfactory.

Sheehy is clearly right, therefore, to pay so much attention to the human resource side of police management. Although I cannot speak for every provincial force, I generally believe that many are seriously lacking in general appraisal and management skills. The extraordinary thing is that when offered the tools to do the job by Sheehy, the chiefs have turned their backs on him. How can anyone support a 'job for life' policy in these straitened times? How long can the chiefs resist having well-qualified civilians as their managerial equals, capable and authorised to give directions to, and share their skills with, doctrinaire police officers?

I would counsel chiefs who have threatened to resign over Sheehy to reconsider their positions carefully. They are highly vulnerable. They head huge corporate bodies with no proper knowledge of fixed budgets and little record of innovation or quantifiable efficiency. If, as Sheehy suggests, the rank of deputy chief constable can be blown away, along with other managerial ranks, the next step could be to replace the chief with a civilian 'chief' executive, with assistant chief constables heading the operational and crime departments of 'Police Services Incorporated'.

My own fear is not for the chiefs but for the rank and file under a Sheehy regime. I do not believe that all the chiefs will be able to learn all the core skills of managers and make the quantum leap required within his recommendations. What we now need, despite the obvious cost implications, is a truly independent watchdog that can be called upon to intercede when required and give impartial advice when bosses and bossed disagree.

If poor management from the top fails to embrace the needs of Sheehy's new vision, thereby penalising the pay packets of the rank and file, then all that Sheehy hopes to achieve will come to naught.

The writer is former Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside. Her book 'No Way Up the Greasy Pole' is published by Constable, pounds 14.95.

(Photographs omitted)