Innovation driven policing: what works, what might, what if

What works

In the policing world, much thinking has been for a while now focused on ‘what works’. This is partly because of the successful College of Policing What Works Centre, and drawing upon tried and tested approaches with an emphasis upon efficacy. And there is no doubt that has advanced policing a lot.

Efficacy (a word originating from the Latin efficacia which became the root of  ‘efficiency’) is all about to what extent does something work (based on has it worked in the past?). The benefit of this approach is you can avoid unnecessarily re-invent wheels, and have more confidence, with less risk in a find that you may then seek to use operationally.

That’s why in that what works world there is such a emphasis on the methodology of research as a safeguard that the end results can be trustable. As you read on you’ll see the reason we are seeking to add to this approach is that it can be more iterative than innovative.

Globally, Scottish medical doctor Archie Cochrane, was an innovating pioneer in insisting on an evidence-based approach, with an emphasis on reliable evidence, that he wrote about in Effectiveness and Efficiency (1971), leading to significant changes to the uses of research in healthcare.

The Cochrane Collaboration subsequently had an international influence and, nowadays, United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) invest much in the what works approach, as do the UK Cabinet Office. The Cabinet-led What Works Network helps inform public spending budgets of around £200 billion, to use evidence to inform policy and public service practices.  

What might

The College of Policing have also been influential in publishing Policing in England and Wales: Future Operating Environment 2040 as a future foresight publication. (You can read more about that here: ).

A key part of the foresight work s about scenario planning to see what might happen and how we might prepare if that predicted trend comes to reality. That what might happen thinking offers an early opportunity to consider and contingency prepare for adaptability. It’s a model that has been used for some time in military thinking, such as  the Ministry of Defence’s Global Strategic Trends (2018) that looks towards 2050.

What if

The focus on efficacy and foresight are great ways to support policing research and innovation, but here’s a new kid in the block (new being the key word) to add further value. 

Here, we are into the world of possibilities more than just the world of probabilities. Innovation starts with an idea and that’s where this world thrives – encouraging and celebrating the possibilities of the idea. 

This world is wholly inclusive – it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from. This world isn’t restricted to who you are or were you have come from as it’s more interested in where your idea is going.

Of course efficacy is important, but there also times when creative possibilities can make the difference. We mentioned earlier how the military are exploring global strategic trends for 2050 to try and get upstream, seeking to explore what might be. This approach is complementary and more about what could be.

In WWII, the Allies were struggling several times during the war, and in Operation Mincemeat, in 1943, a bundle of ideas from Royal Naval intelligence prepared by Ian Fleming were the inspiration that created the opportunity to invade Sicily. There was no real efficacy around this venture, it was pure enterprise and carried risk. But it ended up saving thousands of Allies lives and was a turning point in the war.

This is the same world of ideas as concepts or leaps of insight, of possibilities, that has created countless business opportunities – arguably the industrial revolution itself – and, unfortunately for policing, criminal success too. Within the rules, innovation is called brilliance, outside the law, it’s audacity.

Do criminals innovate and dream ‘what if’? 

Consider Colonel Blood’s theft of the Crown Jewels in 1671; Adam Worth who was nicknamed ‘The Napoleon of Crime’ in the 17th century; Eugène-François Vidocq who was so successful in crime in the 18th century he eventually retired (so far as we know) and rather cheekily set up his own detective agency;  Leonardo Notarbartolo’s Antwerp diamond heist in 2003; Con man Srivastava who ‘sold’ the Taj Mahal three times and Victor Lustig who ‘sold’ the Eiffel Tower twice; Anthony Curcio who employed a team of builders to mask a bank robbery in 2008; Hassan and Abbas’ 2009 $7 million robbery in Berlin; the Balkan Pink Panthers who inspired several movies and Gerald Blanchard, regarded as Canada’s most sophisticated criminal mastermind, who stole the Star of Sisi from Vienna castle. The list, unfortunately, goes on. 

We’re not listing these exploits to demoralise the police; rather illustrate what the enemy are up to. The enemy in this sense really embrace that ‘what’ if thinking mindset. Many of the criminal ventures and exploits listed were not considered ‘possible’ or probable before they were undertaken and in that sense took the victims, and police, by surprise. It’s a good job that ingenuity exists, as Operation Mincemeat shows, but we need to consider if this tool is one that policing is missing out on using itself.

It’s perhaps, the missing aspect strategically for the police, as efficacy has been developed to quite a sophisticated level, and foresight is attracting more serious attention, and both need to continue to grow. But what we also need now is to think more about innovation and enterprise in policing. That point is aimed at everyone in society, not just the ones who work in policing. Policing is too important just to have ideas from the police themselves, so the reform insight opportunities here  – from everyone – are huge. Defunding policing has been mentioned – how about defunding crime, how might we do that? Innovation in policing is a positive venture, full of possibilities, to explore what the world of policing could look like in the future, even where we are learning from the past: that’s part of the cycle of evolution. 

Chasing change

You might think innovation can’t be nudged along. But have a think about the stories behind so many advancements, that often take place out or urgent need such as in wartime or economic crisis, or through visions that carry political imperatives, such as the space race. The rapid series of insights were encouraged (‘we need to find a way’) and stimulated purposefully. Some ideas landed, some didn’t. Apollo 11 was one that did. In such cases there was a strategic and aggressive intent to seek and value ideas because people knew a breakthrough – a game changer – was needed and it might not not come along on its own simply by passively, yet efficiently, doing more of what we did yesterday.

Innovation about is making our own luck, often against all the odds and the sceptics. But for sure without consciously pushing for change and imagining what might be the world world not have advanced as it has at the pace it has. Why not bring that mindset to policing reform? 

There is no such thing as a daft idea. Steve Jobbs, who had a few ideas of his own, explains we can do more, if we dare.

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

If you are interested in helping innovation and enterprise grow in policing there’s a new way you can get directly involved. You can submit you ideas – anything that can be useful or help policing – based on your dreams of the possible, or ‘impossible’, to the national innovation in policing competition. Ideas can be developed and enhanced so don’t worry about having to have all the answers at this stage. Don’t talk yourself out of trying: it’s the spark of the possibility that we need. Rome wasn’t built in a day but someone somewhere first had to have the idea.

Send your ideas in here:

Dr John Coxhead is Professor of Policing innovation and Enterprise at Loughborough University


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