The National Policing Improvement Agency: A force for good

The National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) is probably the most important policing body you have never heard of. Set up by the Home Office in April 2007 to help cut crime and improve public safety, it’s broadly tasked with making sure that the technology and training available to police officers will equip them for the challenges of the 21st century.

And with the public perception that the threat of violent crime and gang cultures are rising and constant concern over global terrorism, the NPIA will play a critical role in supporting the UK police force.

However, the organisation did not get off to the best start. Formed by merging 2,000 employees from several policing agencies, including the Police IT Organisation and training body Centrex, the NPIA had its work cut out from day one trying to combine different cultures and ways of working.

Delivering its mission

To deliver on its mission of making a unique contribution to public safety, the top management team had to provide clear leadership and direction. Yet staff survey results in 2007 indicated that employees simply weren’t on board with the NPIA’s objectives – just two in five of its 2,000 workers understood their employer’s aims and only a third agreed that its business strategy had been clearly explained. What’s more, a paltry 10% believed a high level of trust existed between management and employees.

The figures, released under a Freedom of Information request by Personnel Today, also revealed that three staff a week left the organisation in its first six months, leading some critics, including the unions, to claim the NPIA was actually “hampering” front-line policing.

Now, 18 months since its inception, the NPIA claims to be back on track with its people management, as chief people officer Angela O’Connor explains.

“What we say to staff is ‘yeah, OK, hands up,’ we’re not going to pretend year one was marvellous because it wasn’t, it was very difficult. But actually things have moved on a huge amount.”

She mentions the new NPIA staff council, made up of representatives from across the organisation, which allows employees to give feedback or discuss ideas with senior management, as just one example of how the body is listening to what its employees want. But, she points out, it takes two to tango.

“It’s really important that we treat people as adults. This is not about the parents coming and saying ‘this is all terrible’. Everyone is responsible for the culture of this organisation. A mature organisation welcomes feedback from staff, but there’s no point just saying the managers need to change.”

There is clearly still a lot of work to do, O’Connor admits. “There’s no way I’d say we’re there yet – it takes hard work, energy and a lot of sweat from everyone involved. The staff council creates an open, transparent environment to say what staff think. For some people that’s new.”

Even at the time of the damning staff survey results, the organisation said in a statement that it was not completely surprised by low levels of employee engagement, as bringing together multiple products, cultures and IT systems was a complex management task.

O’Connor says: “What’s different [here] compared with other organisations is that we’re bringing together organisations each with their own views, culture and ways of doing things. It’s quite hard to move into something that’s new, into an ‘NPIA way of doing things’, because whatever you do people are going to say: ‘Well hang on a minute, does that mean what we did in the past was rubbish?’.”

The culture

The NPIA is proud of the fact that unlike its predecessor agencies, it is a police-led organisation. It is headed by chief executive and former chief constable of Thames Valley Police Peter Neyroud and has a tripartite board, consisting of the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities.

The main focus of the NPIA’s policing improvement work is in England and Wales, however, is that it has a strong relationship with policing bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland and collaborates with them on some projects. It employs a mix of contract and permanent staff, as well as a significant amount of seconded police officers – further proof that the organisation aims to understand its ‘customers’.

One of its tasks is to help introduce national policing standards to improve consistency and reduce duplication, and O’Connor is currently working with HR communities across police forces to find out what that standard is for them. The agency is also developing best practice case studies on a number of HR scenarios, using the expertise of the private and public sector, to “professionalise policing”.

“If you’re doing an employee assistance programme, don’t start from scratch, let us be your conduit,” she says. “Being national we can utilise that stuff, but if you’re a force on your own, it’s not easy to do.”

However, O’Connor is only too aware that the agency’s role in making a unique contribution to public safety can only truly be achieved if its people are fully on board. This new police-led culture, putting the police officer at the heart of everything NPIA employees do, can only work if original staff concerns from last year’s merger are dealt with, she explains.

“We’re still looking at the results from back then [from the staff survey]. People have given their views and we need to act on those views,” she says.

A priority for the NPIA has been to communicate its vision and purpose to staff at face-to-face events across its 10 sites. In the early days O’Connor and the top team put on a series of ‘roadshows’ for staff, which she likens to “going on tour, but without the rock legend analogies”. However, she believes these roadshows helped to set the tone for how the organisation will work with its staff.

“The roadshows were about developing a new concept with employees, where we say what we think and we’re open with people. We told them to chuck stuff at us, shout at us if they wanted to. But it wasn’t like that – for some people it was really rare that no-one would be penalised for saying what they thought.”

O’Connor conceded that communicating the new vision – and the new way working – was no easy task.

“People were forceful about the things that didn’t work, but we were able to say OK and we did things about it.”

With lots of tasks on the horizon – from implementing a national leadership strategy to help chief officers use the skills of support functions like HR or IT during major incidents, to a new high-potential development scheme for officers – the agency needs to be confident it can rely on staff to deliver.

Breaking down barriers

One such way was to include business unit managers in the development of the NPIA’s next business plan (2009-10). In September all unit heads met with top management to thrash out future priorities and workloads. O’Connor believes this approach will help to break down any barriers and hierarchies which had previously built up among staff who weren’t necessarily used to talking top-level strategy with management.

The list of engagement strategies goes on: one – a series of workshops and events for line managers and junior staff to meet the chief executive; two – a new core briefing system to ensure that key messages about the NPIA are distilled consistently across the organisation; three – people champions appointed across sites to help deal with people concerns; four – a new chief executive ‘commendations’ scheme (set to launch in 2009), which will recognise the outstanding contributions from agency staff.

While this smacks of initiativitus, O’Connor is confident it will help transform the organisation’s culture and help to improve staff engagement levels. Some 90% of staff have already moved onto the new agency terms and conditions, and the organisation has seen extremely high numbers of managers completing staff appraisals on time. However, the real impact will be measured early next year, when the agency conducts its next staff survey. “Lots of things have changed [since the early months], but the proof of all of this will be how people feel in 2009,” O’Connor says.

The results of that survey will either make or break the agency.

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