Since the 2019 general election, and arguably before, the future of the policing workforce has been fixed in the public and media consciousness.

The police Uplift programme, which is due to reach its conclusion next month, was launched to much fanfare to reverse a decade of gradual cuts, whilst promoting diversity throughout the ranks.

There can be little debating that a greater number of officers on the payroll means that the police service is better placed to meet demand.

However, if the focus begins to fade into the background and the Uplift programme becomes something that we do once and forget about, chances are that we will fail to put the workforce on a sound enough footing to be able to respond the increasingly complex nature of crime in 21st century.

Rarely in life is there a silver bullet. Rarer still for there to be a silver bullet where policing is concerned, but perhaps the closest thing we have as far as the workforce goes is a more considered, long-term and strategic approach to workforce planning.


What is workforce planning?

On the face of it, workforce planning is a fairly straightforward concept: the practice of organisations balancing the supply of people – and their skills – with demand.

Say you own and run a small sandwich shop.

Flying solo, you increasingly find yourself run off your feet, mixing up your piccalilli and your mayo, your cheese and onion with your ham and cheese.

You decide to advertise a part time role in the local paper, so that you can dedicate your time to the artistry of making (bread) rolls during busy lunch time periods.

This, for all intents and purposes is an example workforce planning, albeit a fairly rudimentary one.

In the businesses of filling office workers’ stomachs, you can probably get away with approaching things reactively. However, complexities arise when we switch from the business of delicious handmade rolls to combatting crime across the 48 territorial and special police forces of the UK, I would suggest.

The sheer number of people and diverse skillsets required to run an effective police force means that a simple reactive form of workforce planning simply will not cut the mustard.

After all, there is a lot at stake if we get things wrong – comparative to a minor mix up of the lunch order that is!


How forces approach workforce planning

As alluded to earlier, all organisations are doing workforce planning in some form or another. In fact, most organisations are doing it without actually knowing that they’re doing it, much like staring into space or breathing for example.

Even as a workforce planner I wouldn’t argue that it is as fundamental as breathing, but it’s certainly up there for the health of an effective organisation!

In all seriousness though, the issue in policing is that at a force level, workforce planning is often bolted-on to an existing employees HR portfolio (for example recruitment), meaning that it tends to get watered-down and lost in the bustle of day-to-day business.

On the other end of the continuum, some forces see workforce planning as a standalone specialist activity, which in my experience leads it to becoming isolated and unable to influence key parts of the organisation (such as finance and operational planning).

Either way workforce planning is an activity that appears to lack semantic recognition within forces (and is therefore subsumed into other non-specialist roles) or marginalised to the point that it lacks any real heft organisationally.

Both factors present barriers to developing a meaningful conversation around what best practice might look like and how this could be scaled up and rolled out nationally to plan for the workforce of the future.

In truth, workforce planning needs to enter policing’s lexicon as an accepted, everyday practice, if we are to begin to solve some of its long-term staffing challenges.


What best practice looks like and how forces can benefit

There isn’t a tried and tested method that has been used widely or consistently in policing. That being so, training, awareness and developing different perspectives on workforce planning would be a start. Start is the key word, and in the spirit of progress not perfection.

Effective workforce planning enables organisations to reduce the gap between supply and demand, which results in several efficiencies, including better service delivery, reduced vacancy rates and improved morale. Furthermore, it helps to integrate and influence other areas such as succession planning, talent management and organisational design.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach – each organisation needs to take account of its specific needs and operating context. However, in my experience, the hallmark of best practice is simple but excellent and consistent operational governance that is influenced and driven forward by outstanding individual leaders.

Whilst workforce planning isn’t a panacea or quick fix to the macro-conditions that police forces are contending with right now, when done well at an organisational level it would eliminate several of their key recruitment and retention challenges.

For example, if the supply of a particular skill set is lower than demand, rather than accepting the deficit, an integrated approach to workforce planning would explore how a force can re-design its service delivery and still achieve its aims.

When supply options are limited (e.g., the Uplift programme requires police officers, and there is no discretion allowed for forces to challenge this), workforce planning can help identify actions that target supply weaknesses or opportunities, such as soliciting feedback loops to improve the onboarding and training experience of new recruits to slow the rate of attrition in the first 12-months.

Applying such a methodology to systematically work through workforce planning considerations and options is a way of ensuring that workforce planning is done well.


Final thoughts

Whilst not the most exciting aspect of policing I grant you; workforce planning should form an intrinsic part of business planning for operating models, and other accountabilities such as the force management statements and people strategies.

As a public service predicated on legitimacy it is incumbent on the police to deliver value for money and one of the main ways of doing this is through the deployment and development of an effective workforce.

For a long time, policing has become increasingly reactive – outside of major city centres the chances of seeing a police officer doing anything other than responding to an incident are low, and for the public and the service perception matters.

If preventative policing, which makes communities safer and more confident, is something that we aspire to, forces need to plan accordingly.
Workforce planning helps them to plan for the future by aligning their workforce to what the organisation needs in order to deliver effective public services. It helps HR teams and senior leaders to think through what is required within their workforce to meet and manage demands at a local, national or service level in the face of the current skills and supply shortage.

Whilst we have a long way to go until workforce planning reaches widespread recognition and maturity in policing, we at Skills for Justice have made it our mission to kickstart the conversation.

To get involved, join us at our free webinar ‘Workforce Planning in the Justice Sector’ on 27 April. Register to join this online event.

Read the article on Policing Insight.


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