Rising to the challenge of COVID-19 as a senior leader in the police


by Brendan McCarron, CIPFA Senior Consultant

Authorities are under immense pressure to keep functions and outputs running smoothly as they respond to the financial and organisational challenges produced by COVID-19. But such hurdles cannot be overcome without insightful and decisive senior leadership.

One public sector body in particular is experiencing momentous operational changes during the current crisis: the police. Police forces have been given new powers, unprecedented in British policing history, which are centred upon ensuring that the government's social distancing regulations are followed; thereby preventing people from acting in ways that will put themselves and others at risk.

Senior officers across the UK need to ensure that all members of their force have the support and guidance they need to confidently execute their new duties during these uncertain times and keep the public safe in such abnormal circumstances. As the crisis continues, police forces are under pressure to adapt in accordance with continuously evolving government guidance – and it is up to senior leadership to ensure that they do so effectively.

The top priority of senior leadership in a police force must be both the safety of the public and the members of the force themselves. Guaranteeing the safety of each individual within the police force can only be achieved by ensuring that new objectives are understood, and by providing the force with the knowledge, equipment and resources that it needs to meet them successfully.

During the current crisis, the police's raison d'être to protect the population remains unchanged. However, this purpose has now been placed in the context of a very real and national threat. Now more than ever, the public must remain convinced that the police are fulfilling this purpose by using their new powers with the public's best interests in mind.

All of your staff must be aware of and understand this change. Decide how you want to convey this message to your force and promote it with clarity and enthusiasm. Encouraging unity is crucial in times of crisis.

But the road ahead is winding, and nobody can say with certainty what hides around the next bend. Circumstances may change, and police forces should be ready to adapt accordingly. As a senior leader, it is up to you to keep the situation under review and keep all members of your force informed of any changes in practice.

Striking a balance between speed and control during times of crisis is essential in enabling operations to run effectively. You should allow managers to make decisions with regard to tactical prioritisation and resource management, but also set clear boundaries with regard to the decisions that they can make themselves and those that need to be referred to senior leadership. Be clear that the aim is to optimise the productivity of the force as a whole, and look at any systems that are preventing cooperation and cross communication, such as different departments failing to share information.

Remain agile. Operational success is about overcoming the immediate issues and maintaining effectiveness while looking towards the future. In terms of the future, both the short- and long-term must be considered. Senior leaders should be thinking about overcoming the immediate obstacles, while preparing for all the possibilities that lie ahead. This will enable prioritisation and resource/management allocation decisions to be taken as required. Any imbalances can also be tackled and resources deployed where they are most needed.

Be ready to reconfigure strategies and structures based on changes in the situation and new information from central government. This could involve moving resources, including human resources, around in ways that you never have before. Bold moves may be necessary for optimisation.

A return to former 'business as usual' practices is unlikely to take place anytime soon. Therefore, you need to think about what your police force will look like as we begin to emerge from this crisis. Work on a vision that your whole organisation can relate to, one that offers hope of a brighter future; no matter how uncertain things may seem at present.

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