Is Policing on the Bus to Abilene? @nathanconstable and me

Is Policing on the Bus to Abilene?

Nathan Constable – practitioner

For the last month or so I have stepped back from the Twitter commentary on policing and watched. I do this from time to time with the objective of taking a helicopter view of the various themes and subjects under discussion. I want to see the level of agreement and discourse. I want to see if it’s joined up. Look for constantly reoccurring topics, conflict, different directions, where the gravity is coming from.

This, invariably, turns out to be a very painful process as I am yet to finish a period of observation without thinking that “none of this adds up.”

And it doesn’t – when you look at things coming out from the College of Policing and compare it to commentary from front line officers you have to ask how much of it is penetrating. You only have to look at the ongoing debate on taser issues and the routine arming of police officers to see the chasms which exist. I say “debate” but when you really look at it you are left wondering if it is actually a debate or whether there is a debate to be had or even allowed.

Look at the frequent talk of a desire to move away from a blame culture in policing and then watch the news, and the protests, and the politics.

The talk of Evidence Based Policing and the all too frequent reality of Ideology Based Policing and the apparent determination to see some projects continue and enlarge despite there either being no evidence of success or, worse, quite a lot of evidence revealing the problems.

I could go on giving examples because, when you look at it hard, it touches on just about every single aspect of policing past, present and future planned.

If you were to ask yourself “is there a genuine consensus on any part of policing at the moment – from how it’s done – to what it is – to who does it / should do it and how qualified they need to be, the honest answer has to be a resounding “no” and the gulf is massive.

And yet – there also appears to be a sense of overwhelming inevitability about the direction policing is heading at the same time. Seriously – when you stand over it and look down on it all it is quite staggering. So much confusion, discord, fragmentation and seemingly incompatible ideas and yet it’s on rails. A one-way track.

The next question is – how is this possible?

I am not a fan of management gurus or new fads in leadership. I’ve been exposed to a lot of it at various times in my career and I am yet to be convinced by any one particular theory. There are elements of each which may be useful at different times but there is no single solution to success and a lot of it – for me anyway – is just words on a page.

However, there are good things to be learned. For example – lots of people raved about Turning the Ship around by L. David Marquet. Marquet was a commander in the US Navy who suddenly found himself taking control of the worst performing nuclear submarine in the fleet. The book documents his account of how it went from worst to best by all methods of the Navy’s measurement. I read it and wasn’t as excited about it as many but there was one element which struck me as it was a more conscious version of something I was already doing. Marquet was struck by how nobody on the submarine would do anything without permission of a senior officer – even if the lower ranking officer was the expert. Nothing would happen without someone asking for permission to do it. Marquet felt this disempowered his sailors and so gave the instruction that instead of saying “Permission to submerge the ship, Sir?” and there following a load of questions from the Captain he turned it on its head – so – when the sailor recognised it was time to submerge and had completed his checklist he would approach the captain, advise him that the checklist was complete item by item and say “I intend to submerge the ship, Sir.”

This allowed the Captain to listen to the list of things which needed to be done – which came directly from the sailor. This empowered him and then allowed the Captain to either modify “have you thought about?” If something was missing or it wasn’t the right time or better still reply with a simple “Very good”.

I haven’t written bestselling books on the subject but had been doing something not dissimilar. I was struck when I took over my team how many people were approaching the supervisors for permission or reassurance. Even if they really should have known the answer. And it always came in the form of a question “what should I do?”

This was taking up a lot of supervisory time so I asked my colleagues to answer the question with a question “what do you think?”

This would cause the enquirer to say what they were already thinking. Almost always they knew the answer. The supervisor could then intervene gently with “what about?” Or “have you thought about?” if the enquirer needed steering or could simply reply with a simple confirmation if the person was right. My theory was that eventually people would be more confident in their own decisions and would enquire less. It seems to have worked as the queues to see the supervisors are a lot shorter now.

So there are some good elements in these airport lounge leadership books even if no single one of them is entirely right.

I mention this because some of these books offer warnings. The most poignant of which, for me, have come from “Risk” by Dan Gardner, “Wilfull Blindness” by Margaret Heffernan and “The Stupidity Paradox” by André Spicer and Matts Alvesson. But there is another little tale which – I think – could be applied to policing right now.
The Abilene Paradox.

This was introduced to the world by a management consultant called Jerry B Harvey in the US in 1974. It recounts the story of a family trip and is otherwise known as “The Bus to Abilene.”
General Colin Powell, former head of the joint chiefs of staff in the US military, recounts that it is a well-known term in the US army. Meetings could be frequently halted by the chair interrupting proceedings with the words “hold on, are we on the Bus to Abilene here?”

The story goes like this: an extended family are sat in the heat on their porch is rural Texas when the old father in law announces he is bored and wants to go to Abilene for food. His dutiful wife immediately expresses support for the idea and one by one all the family go along with it.

They catch a bus. The journey is long, hot and unpleasant. When they arrive they eat at a restaurant and the food was as bad as the journey. At the conclusion of the meal they all head home on the bus and no one has expressed any comment at all about their feelings.

When they get back home – someone says “well that was a great trip wasn’t it” without a hint of sarcasm. To which someone replies “no, it was awful.” Another says “I didn’t want to go anyway.” Another says “nor did I – I only went because you wanted to go” and so on – until it is evident that only one person wanted to go in the first place and everyone else just agreed because they thought they ought to or had to or didn’t want to say anything. The family then wonders how on earth they all ended up going on a journey none of them actually wanted to go on.

This is, as the texts will tell you, not the same as groupthink because groupthink is where everyone actually DOES agree – but possibly on the wrong things for the wrong reasons. In the Abilene Paradox there is actual disagreement with the original plan – universal agreement that the plan is a bad one – but everyone goes along with it anyway because they feel they should – have to – ought to – it’s not their place etc.

So what does this have to do with policing at the moment? Well – that’s for you to decide all I would ask is for you to rise above the noise and look down on what’s going on across the board of policing. Look really hard. Look at what the police are being asked to do and the resources they have to do it. Look at what the police are expected to do and the powers they have. Look carefully at the criticism and where it is coming from and then look at some of what is being proposed. Look at the theory and then look at the practice. Look for the conflict, the disagreement and then the direction and then ask “are we on the Bus to Abilene?”

Emma Williams – not practitioner!

I had not heard of the Bus to Abilene when NC told me about it. It is an interesting tale and one I think I can relate to policing but perhaps in a slightly different way.

Nathan starts this blog by outlining his perceptions of the fragmented and disjointed opinions of policing that are voiced on Twitter. The debate about a range of police issues, he argues, is perhaps unwelcome by some. Different ideas and challenges are hidden and in some cases even silenced. Indeed, when you have off line conversations with police officers about their personal concerns around speaking out on various forums (which I have a personal interest in), it is clear that many worry about ‘saying the wrong thing’ for fear of professional standards departments knocking on their doors.

Here I think lies the problem. In one way we hear of the need to encourage challenge, innovation, bottom up decision making, more creative problem solving etc. etc. Sadly, I think for many, it is seen as simply, rhetoric. I do absolutely think there are forces out there doing, or at least trying to do, things differently and I also think there are officers out there who actually don’t want to do it. They perceive their role as crime fighting and arresting bad guys and that is what they want to do – so actually there are challenges from both the top and the bottom of the organisation at times.

However, what is dangerous for everyone here is not having the ability to speak up through fear, fear of making a mistake, fear of reprimand, fear of blame and fear of disconnect from colleagues. And this is important in an environment that is classically known for its solidarity, teamwork and camaraderie. As the Abilene paradox states, people don’t want to ‘rock the boat’ and be considered as different. Any social psychologist will tell you that conforming in a group setting is easier than being different and actually, hearing the stories at our conference in June this year, I can see why. Sometimes it is simply easier to follow a group than it is to be an individual – this is key.

Initiatives that are doomed to succeed are it seems commonplace in the police, yes we evaluate them, but often crudely and without context and dare I say it without the occupational professionalism from the frontline. Without trying to get academic about it what constitutes knowledge is highly contested and the type of rational, standardised knowledge that is being promoted (by some) at the current time can only add to this climate of fear as officers are encouraged to, follow a protocol, complete a check list, stay in line with the risk assessment… getting it wrong is monitored by management via these outputs and they have the reverse effect on officers. They certainly do not invite difference and the trying of new things.

This blog could be really long – maybe we can do a part two but I agree that there are risks of a visit to Abilene. However, I think I would add to NC’s observations by saying that there is also a policing paradox developing here. A paradox that is created by a rhetoric (although I hope it won’t remain one) that officers will be trusted to make their own decisions and that leaders, both senior and middle, (who are perhaps even more influential) will encourage and empower just like in Marquet’s book. This is juxtaposed with an environment (as far as officers are concerned) that negates their opinion and supports a new regime of knowledge creation that happens entirely outside of their own occupational professionalism.
Always remember that groups benefit from diversity – and I mean diversity in the widest sense. Let’s celebrate diversity of thought and not miss the creative ideas and solutions that might offer a much better destination than Abilene. And you know what even if Abilene is the place of choice let’s get there together through listening, empowering and accepting ideas that might facilitate a smoother journey.

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