Has modern policing become social work?

How do police work with the public to address issues of 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 wrote a two-part blog on how the police service needs to work differently to meet the challenges of increasing demand and complex crime.

In the second part of her blog, Dr Cottam explores how officers and staff can deliver modern policing in a changing landscape. You can read part one of her blog on our website.

"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."

Dr Hilary Cottam 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.

The College of Policing uses cookies to collect and analyse information about the users of this website. We use this information to enhance the content and other services available on the site. By continuing to use our site, you are agreeing for us to set a small number of cookies. You can manage your preferences for Cookies at any time, for more information please see our Cookies Policy.