PCC Blog 109

How do our public institutions avoid having ‘blame cultures’?

A blame culture at its most extreme is one where employees don’t accept responsibility for their actions but constantly shift the blame for any mistakes onto colleagues. No one feels able to trust anyone else. People constantly write emails to cover their backs. And so on.

All this means that the organisation is incapable of learning because learning is a corporate and collegiate business. It requires everyone to take responsibility and play a part. But if responsibility is always shifted to someone else, the organisation gets stuck and cannot move on. Once such a culture is established it is hard to turn round.

Many years ago the aircraft industry realised that if they were to improve safety they had to enable those who made mistakes to fully admit them so that there could be learning. That is the opposite of a blame culture. Of course, if people made errors because they were drunk on the job or slapdash in their approach, that was another matter. But where mistakes were admitted, the situation that led up to the error being made could be examined: was there something about the system or ways of working that had contributed to the mistake?

In a social services department, for example, people might make mistakes because their case load was simply too demanding, or they were working too many hours at a stretch, or there were flaws in the way records were kept, or because they had taken a parent’s word about a child too easily; or whatever. The mistake needs to be acknowledged so that all can learn and a service improved.

A blame culture can be avoided if an organisation promotes strong internal values – such as fairness, integrity and trust. These three values are what South Yorkshire Police (SYP) are committing to. If everyone who works for SYP treats colleagues with fairness, acts with integrity – by which they mean ‘doing the right thing’ – and builds trust, then a blame culture can be kept at bay. Mistakes can be admitted, rather than covered up, responsibility can be accepted, rather than shuffled elsewhere,

But this is not easy for a public body to bring about in a society that so often seems determined to turn our life together into one giant blame culture. Those who work in hospitals know how litigious people can be even when doctors and nurses have done their best. A surgeon friend said to me, ‘One of the hardest parts of the job is dealing with people’s unrealistic expectations. If a really sick patient doesn’t recover from surgery, the medical staff must have made a mistake. Then the blame game starts.’

Police officers can make mistakes in good faith and for many reasons, as people can in any walk of life. Where those mistakes are the result of some serious lapse of judgement or just bad behaviour, that is one thing. But if we are to make progress and improve performance, we must resist creating a culture of blame. And that means embedding those values of fairness, integrity and trust.

Young in age and young in service

The Uplift programme should see at least 20,000 new police officers in forces across England and Wales by 2024. At the same time, record numbers of officers are retiring and will also need to be replaced. In other words, the police service across the country is rapidly becoming both young in age but also young in service.

I know what this means for South Yorkshire – just under half the force will be both relatively young and inexperienced within a couple of years. I haven’t yet seen the national statistics, but I assume someone in the Home Office knows what they are and is thinking hard about what the implications of this might be – internally for the organisations themselves and externally for their ability to fight crime. The idea that there are no implications, or that we don’t need to think about them, is dangerous and delusional.

I’ll return to the implications for crime on another occasion, but for the moment, think about the impact this is potentially having on police forces – two are not at all hard to see.

First, this younger generation of officers view the world of work, including policing, rather differently from some of their predecessors. They have grown up hearing about the importance of having a healthy work-life balance and well-being at work. Police forces themselves have been saying this for sometime as well; but if new recruits find that what is routinely and regularly demanded of them seems a long way from this, it creates tensions. The reality is that the demands of policing often do impact on healthier patterns of working.

Second, nothing will sap the enthusiasm for the work more quickly than not being able to do it satisfactorily. If, to take one example, officers on response teams start the day with a list of jobs to be done but find they have no vehicle or the body worn cameras are not working or whatever, they will become frustrated.

I was talking last week to groups of student offers who were in the university as part of their training. They were all pleased to be officers. Some spoke about the fulfilment of an ambition long held. They were all very thoughtful. I went to talk about what is in the Police and Crime Plan. They also wanted to talk about issues of welfare and job satisfaction.

If we are going to retain as well as recruit successfully, we clearly have to do both.

Wrong gear

By chance I tuned into a television programme in which a group of men of a certain age were driving around in cars. Driving at break neck speeds and taking absurd risks while laughing and joking.

I had just been reading a police report about a group of young men who had driven a car at speed, failed to hold the road on a bend and hit a tree at force. One died and others had life-changing injuries.

I don’t know how widely the television programme is watched or by whom. But I can’t believe it helps improve standards of driving or road safety.

Time to take their licences away.

Stay safe and well.