Hilary Cottam > Blog > Welfare State > Social Work? Policing in the 21st century

Social Work? Policing in the 21st century

I was honoured this week to deliver the annual Newsam Lecture to police leaders from across the country.  ‘Is modern policing social work?’ I asked in the title of my lecture.

The police are facing something of a perfect storm.  They witness every day the increasing vulnerability in the populations they serve: a result of widening inequality, the effects of modern poverty and the rise of new problems such as digital crime and modern slavery.  As deep cuts to our public services take effect the police become a service of last resort called out to find that missing child, confused older person or distraught homeless youngster with increasing regularity.  At the same time the police have faced their own cuts and must maintain their focus on addressing the complexity of modern crime.

The police need to work differently and they are exploring how best to do this.  Those who gathered this week at the National College of Policing were frank about the challenges and open to thinking in radical new ways about how to move forward.

I was asked to take vulnerability as my theme in this year’s lecture and a tweet announcing the title of my talk provoked social media interest from the police but an exasperated and sometimes angry response from social workers who are clear that social work and policing are two distinct roles although as Mick Ward, a trained social worker and public leader I very much admire pointed out, ‘bad social work is soft policing’.

In my lecture, I was not arguing that police should become social workers.  Since I am no expert on policing I was not in fact making any recommendations, I was simply asking a series of questions about how we can look afresh at some knotty challenges and what we can do differently.  As everyone that evening acknowledged better management and greater efficiency are important but doing the same things differently will not get us to where we need to be.

Here are the facts.

Demand is rising – the welfare state has not eroded poverty – it is here with us in old forms and new – there is increasing and deepening vulnerability: amongst the young, the old, and those left behind in many ways;

Complexity is thickening – crimes that take place where we can’t see them – on the net – through networks we cannot easily fathom; and here we see some of the challenges too of the instruments of old institutions – traditional statistics can mislead, telling us that crime is going down when it is taking on new form, becoming concentrated in certain places and often increasing;

And our communities are changing: new patterns of work, of family life, of migration: the social bonds between us are shifting and altering the contexts in which we work.  Many want to participate within their communities but traditional forms of professional working and hierarchical post war welfare institutions make it hard to join in.

What should the police do?

My work designing new forms of public service with front line workers and communities across Britain has brought me face to face with crisis and vulnerability on a regular basis.  As I describe in my forthcoming book Radical Help, I have seen the way that those most in need – families in crisis, those with mental illness, those who cannot find good work, those who are lonely – revolve through our welfare systems again and again.

Why is this?

I think we face two problems.  First, when there is not enough resource to hand to do the job properly you must manage the situation below the line of risk and turn to the next person in the queue.  Police officers, social workers and many others do this every day, knowing that this individual or family will come back on their radar but not being able to do very much about it.

Secondly, our current welfare institutions were not designed to solve the problems we face today: problems that are complex and different in nature, problems that need mass social participation if we are to solve them.

So it is not just about a lack of money nor is it a simple case of whether the police, social workers or any other committed public workers are best at the job.  We cannot get lost in a border war.  Instead we need to work together to grow different and socially rooted approaches – we need to find new public solutions that support communities and each and every one of us to flourish and we need to develop new roles and ways of working to facilitate this change.  In this particular way – in advocating a way of working that is socially rooted – I would argue that modern policing is social work.

In my book I argue that a 21st century approach to bigger questions of welfare must invert the current emphasis on managing need and seek instead to foster capability within individuals and communities.  I look at how this can work in practice.  Many, many people in Britain are already working in new ways, sometimes inside radical teams and sometimes in spite of the limits of their organisations.  The challenge is to move this work from margin to centre: to think about the new systems, leadership and metrics that are required to sustain this work.

To do this all of us must work in new ways and our systems need to change.

I have been struck again and again in my work at the way that vulnerable people reflect vulnerable systems.  Those trying to help and those who need help mirror each other in their behaviours, the way they talk about one another and sadly very often in their lack of trust in each other.

In this situation we can focus on, for example, an individual family in crisis or a person without work and we can berate them.  In the same way we can say that a lack of change is the fault of a particular professional or indeed a whole service – it’s about the police, or it’s about social work.  But I think this is a deep error. Good people cannot work within vulnerable systems and vulnerable systems cannot support vulnerable people.  We need to admit that the challenges we face are much bigger than any one individual or service.

So, within this much larger context, what specifically should the police do?

It has been my experience that the police make excellent community workers.  In my book I talk about the creative contributions police officers, nurses, housing officers, social workers and many others have played in designing new ways of working that foster capability at the community level. Sometimes these new roles were voluntary, sometimes they involved the day job: forming and joining new teams in which traditional identities, service menus and measures were put aside to building something genuinely collaborative.

Police officers I have worked with have been adept at forging new roles.  They have been keen to be part of new ways of working that bring different professionals together and very often their frank talking has been welcomed by those who have been seeking help but are exasperated at being managed and talked down to.

In my lecture, I asked, should these social roles form the template for police officers of the future?

My answer is that I don’t think so, in the sense that I don’t think in a healthy, flourishing society the police would concentrate on social projects or do the work of social workers, neither would they become an emergency mental health service.

But I do think modern policing is social work in the sense that the police must be socially rooted.  And I do think experimenting with new roles can play an important part in developing new skills and relationships with others.

Perhaps good policing is above all about good relationships but here’s the challenge – good policing is about facilitating relationships outside the police force.

What could this mean in practice?

I had three suggestions.  Firstly I think a new vision is needed.  This vision cannot be about delivery or managing risk or greater efficiency – these things are important but they are not galvanising.  A new vision would re-connect policing to a bigger story about who we could be.  We will protect you but we will also make sure that neighbourhoods and individuals flourish.

Secondly the police need to think about new forms of collaboration.  They need at times to step in but at others to step back and facilitate the work of others.  The fire service was transformed by the fitting of smoke alarms in the homes of millions not by more efficient fire-fighting.  Heart attacks have gone down because we smoke less and exercise more not because doctors are better or because technology has advanced.  Of course, in each of these cases the professionals – fire fighters, doctors – were instigators of these changes but they made change happen elsewhere. What is the equivalent for policing – perhaps it is seconding more police for periods to the sort of projects I create and in which police have played such a brilliant role – I don’t know.

It will definitely be about creating stronger relationships within communities.  With every action and every policy we have to think: does this foster the bonds between people – or does it actually – even with the best of intentions – erode those bonds and limit capability.

Thirdly I think the police must think about the relationships within their forces – their own systems and vulnerability.  Front line work in any profession is hard and sometimes unbearably distressing.  There is wear and tear and I think we need to think radically about this as well.  I talked in my lecture about how we could support police officers to avoid burn out and to find the space for learning and new forms of collaboration.

As I argue in my book Radical Help good work means taking care of everyone – those who are vulnerable and need help but also the professionals whose role it is to help.

I am grateful to the College of Policing for their invitation and I was inspired by the many conversations I had afterwards with leaders doing truly interesting work with open minds.

A full version of the 2018 Newsam Lecture will be made available on line from the National College of Policing.  You can find out more about my book which will be published in June here