Silos – #WeCops Blog
This weekend was the first study weekend at Canterbury Christ Church University. We were very lucky to have Chief Constable Ian Hopkins come and deliver a presentation for us on leadership. This blog isn’t about that but it was timely that he mentioned his move in GMP towards systems thinking and joint outcomes – essentially a move away from silos (both internally and externally with other agencies). This he explained was based on the strong realisation that the police cannot alone (ina silo) deal with the type of wicked social problems that are driving demand in his city. The next day a police officer student used the term ‘silo junkie’ to describe the impact of quickly establishing specialist teams to deal with the next crisis that is perceived as RED on the priority list. It seems relevant to mention this as a little ‘background’ for this blog.
The first thing that was apparent from the #WeCops debate was that the term ‘silo’ is not widely known or defined. I (Ian) didn’t encounter it myself until the early-2000s, when I started looking at how policing fitted in with the work other agencies. ‘Silo Thinking’ is the problem when different teams within the same company sit in their own boxes, focused on their own problems and resources – putting their needs ahead of the company’s overall objectives. This is important if we consider the decision by Ian Hopkins to move away from this way of thinking and consider how ‘separateness’ might actually restrict effective problem solving and linkages between different, encountered problems.
When in GMP I (Ian) looked across our contact with other agencies and we found silos everywhere. We had similar problems, usually involving the same people and places but perhaps different outcome aims. We realised that we could all help each other. A small effort by one agency could make a big difference for others, and that one agency’s problem could often be solved by using the powers of another agency – or getting another agency to change the way they worked.
Instead, we saw jobs/cases/problems passed from silo to silo, from agency to agency, sitting in queues, shifting up and down separate priority lists that took no account of others’ needs. We were happy to dump work on each other, but we were not happy sharing information. And we wouldn’t change our priorities in order to help other agencies out.
Cops readily see silos in their dealings with other agencies. Health, and mental health in particular. As cops struggle to resolve incidents and help people in crisis, it can often seem that other agencies are working to completely different agendas. The CJS is also plagued by silos. On the other hand, partnership working in neighbourhoods has really progressed, and there are many great examples where silos have been broken down. Walk into some of the multi-agency problem solving or enforcement teams, and you will be hard pushed to figure out who works for which agency.
It’s easy to point at silos outside policing. We can all agree on how they get in the way of us doing our work. But we wanted to look at silos within policing. They are there, alright. The silos are internal: separate teams/units/departments focused on their own work, to the detriment of the force’s overall performance; not sharing information and intelligence; a defensive and protective mindset, where getting support from other teams can be really difficult.
Those internal silos lead to work being passed from unit to unit, sitting in queues, and often being rejected or re-prioritised. To save effort in one unit, it’s passed to other units – even though it may cause extra work overall. Others may refuse to pick up work that they do not think is their’s, even when they have the space to do it.
A police-speak translation of ‘silo thinking’ is ‘squad mentality’. ‘Squad’ is not used so much in policing these days. Instead, we have created a plethora of specialist units. It’s a minefield these days trying to understand all the 3-letter acronyms, and work out what exactly they do. NPT, PPU, DVU, RPT, RPU, TSU, TAU – the list goes on and on. And so, much of the @wecops debate on ‘silos’ ended up talking about ‘specialisms’.
That was partly my fault, because I started talking about ‘remit’. All these separate units have their own ‘remit’. The remit defines what those units are there to do: what is their job – and what isn’t. That seems to be where the problems start. As one contributor said, ‘Not in my remit’ is the most hated phrase, and often meant you were not putting the needs of victims or colleagues first.
In some research I (Emma) am completing currently these issues have been observed in practice. I have spoken to officers who have been given no choice about being moved from an area of policing they enjoy and have skills in into a different area as a result of a review publication and an internal ‘moral panic’ occurring as a result. This has huge implications on the discretionary effort of the officer, the knowledge lost in their previous role and the lack of knowledge they described having in their new one which bought them into contact with some of the most vulnerable victims who report an offence to the police. I have also heard officers say that the good thing about specialists is that it removes ‘things’ (people) from their remit leaving them to focus on what is important (in this case dealing with offenders). Without getting to academic this reinforces the perceived mandate of policing of being focused on crime fighting and catching the bad guys when we know that much of what they do is simply not that.
The debate discussed examples where remits got in the way: geographical boundaries, between teams, between shifts. Growing workloads and shrinking resources had led teams to becoming even more protective. How can you take on other units’ work when you are already under pressure? It’s natural for supervisors to be protective of their team. We may even regard it as good leadership. Leaders should look after their team, and help them. Taking on extra work, which other units should be doing, is ‘not right’. Why should my team cover the failings of others? No-one helps us, etc, etc.
But specialisms are not the same as silos. Of course we need specialisms and specialists. We need officers and staff who are experts in particular areas of work. We talked about how specialist units brought energy and impact – solving problems, raising standards, and improving service for victims. But we also talked about how sometimes the bigger picture was missed. At the centre is the victim, of course. And sometimes that can be forgotten in disputes over remits.
Is it inevitable that specialist units become silos? The feeling in the discussion was that it should not. Good leadership (hmm – see above), and a focus on the overall and shared objectives should overcome the negative aspects. But is it all about leadership?
We talked about when a major incident, a crisis, brought everyone together. A clear objective and shared priorities. Teams focused on same goals, eager to help each other out. Those sorts of operations can leave everyone with a sense of achievement… and then we go back to the day jobs.
What made the difference during the major incident? It wasn’t ‘leadership’ – what happened was that the ‘remit’ had changed. The ‘day job’ was different. Change the remit, and barriers disappear. ‘That’s not my job’ becomes ‘how can I help’.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. The other work doesn’t go away; the crisis doesn’t last for ever. And if you change one set of remits, you just create another – with the same risk of silos.
The lesson is important, though. Bloodymindedness and personalities can get in the way of teamwork. But the biggest factor is remit – how the work is organised and shared out. If the design is good, it can minimise the tension points and risk of clashes, and build the sense of teamwork. If the design is poor, it can cause too much tension and frustration. Conflicting objectives, disputes over whose job it is. Teamwork undermined.
Good leadership can help manage those conflicts. But good leaders should also be looking to stop those conflicts happening in the first place. That, for me, comes down to the design of the work.