Is modern policing social work? – Dr Hilary Cottam

How do officers and staff work differently to respond to increase in vulnerability?

Dr Hilary Cottam is an internationally acclaimed innovator and social entrepreneur, who looks at how people can bring about radical social change.

She has advised governments, companies and third sector organisations in the UK and internationally. She was awarded her PhD in 1999 and she was named UK Designer of the Year in 2005 for her pioneering approach to social design.

After giving this year's Newsam Lecture, Dr Cottam has written a two-part blog on how the police service needs to work differently to meet the challenges of increasing demand and complex crime:
I was honoured to deliver the annual Newsam Lecture to police leaders from across the country last month. 


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 last month at the College of Policing site in Ryton 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 next month's newsletter Dr Cottam explores what officers and staff can do to deliver modern policing in a changing landscape. 

She is the author of Radical Help: How we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state. The book will be published on June 7 but can be pre-ordered now.

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