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From Worst to Best in Four Years - Keith Hunter

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In 2015, Humberside Police became the first force to be awarded an 'inadequate' in the HMICFRS PEEL Assessments and morale was at its lowest ebb. Since then the force has turned itself around. Policing Insight's editor Tina Orr-Munro interviews Humberside PCC Keith Hunter to find out how the force's morale went from the lowest to the highest in the country.

When Keith Hunter was elected Police and Crime Commissioner for Humberside in 2016, the force was possibly at its lowest ebb. Police officer strength had dipped by around 500 officers to its lowest level of 1,420 in 2016, compared with 2,015 in 2010.

A 2015 inspection by HMICFRS revealed a force that was ‘not prepared to face future financial challenges and had limited understanding of current and future demand’. In his inspection of the force, the then HMIC Mike Cunningham said he had ‘serious concerns’ about Humberside, the only force in the country to be awarded ‘inadequate’.

Unsurprisingly, the workforce was not happy either – 84.5 per cent said they had low personal morale, according to the Police Federation’s Pay and Morale Survey 2015. Nearly a quarter revealed they were intending to leave the force in the following five years and 86.6 per cent said they would not recommend policing as a career to others.

Four years on, Humberside is a different force. Low personal morale has significantly improved and now sits at 35 per cent, taking it from the worst to best performing force for police officer morale in England and Wales. The number planning to leave has dwindled to five per cent. Sickness rates for officers have dropped to 3.8% of hours lost, below the national average. In June this year, HMICFRS rated the force ‘good’ at keeping people safe and reducing crime for the first time across all three criteria: effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy.

The force rightly deserves praise for its efforts. When it comes to change, large public sector organisations, including police forces, can behave like the proverbial oil tanker. Turning them around can be a slow and cumbersome process, but while the tanker may reach its destination in the end, the same cannot always be said in policing. 

‘Employer of choice’

Mr Hunter was, of course, aware of the challenges that awaited him, and he says he took on the role with a plan in mind, albeit a risky and, at that point, untried plan. Firstly, he says, he had to make the force ‘a place where people wanted to work’.

“One of my initial aims was to make the force an employer of choice. This enabled me to hold the chief constable to account for how the workforce was treated. We’ve kept that to the fore.”

Next came an overhaul of force processes. Mr Hunter says that when he came to office, he found there were no ‘system linkages’ between HR and financing which made implementing changes almost impossible.

“There was no clear understanding about how many officers and staff the force had. HR and financing used different measurements. There was no clarity. One of the first things we had to do was to align these departments.”

Humberside’s police strength has suffered greatly, alongside other forces, during austerity. Figures reveal it lost around five hundred police officers between 2010 and 2016. However, Mr Hunter says that, in Humberside’s case, the funding already existed to recruit more officers.

“Falling numbers created an enormous amount of stress on those remaining. Yet, we had the funds to deliver more officers.”

The funds that Mr Hunter are referring to are the force’s £30m pot of reserves. Today, many forces dip into their reserves to shore up policing, but three years ago this was not considered a sensible route.

“I did get challenged on this, but there seemed to me to be a lack of understanding about how the force’s finances worked so much so the force had under-spent for a generation.

“Our use of the reserve is, in effect, what has since been imposed on policing by the Government and, yes, I admit it does give me a warm glow that my approach has been vindicated.”

Freeing up funding has facilitated a significant increase in officer numbers. The force has recruited an additional 327 police officers since 2016 taking its strength up to just over 1900. Overall, the plan is to recruit 480 officers. The increased numbers have already had an effect.

“Instead of officers coming on to shift and finding four or five people, they’re finding 12 to 14. That’s massive not just in terms of visibility on the streets, but also in terms of demand on them.”

The under-spend is just one area of the force’s business processes that troubled Mr Hunter when he came into office. He also found little overall understanding of the business side of policing which was hampering its progress.

“I accept that not everyone has an interest or a strength in business, but if you don’t have it you need to recognise it as a weakness and recognise those who do know about it otherwise your business is not going to be as effective as it could be.”

Risk-based approach

Mr Hunter has taken a risk-based approach to the force’s finances, allowing him to feed in some of the force’s reserves over five years, alongside efficiency savings of £13m for the same period. This will ensure the recruitment of the additional officers is deliverable and sustainable. However, public services operate in a politically volatile environment and the plan will be reconfigured to honour two unfunded (by the Government) pay rises, adding a £1m cost pressure.

In addition to his reserve strategy, Mr Hunter credits an ‘outcome-based’ planning approach for helping to turn the force around.

“The issue is that many outcome-based approaches are actually only really focused on outputs. This can lead to unwanted by-products such as target-setting. But a genuine outcome-based approach involves a planning process, a performance process and a change in culture all working together.”

It also means having a senior leadership team that is willing and able to take that plan forward. Mr Hunter says the appointment of Chief Constable Lee Freeman in June 2017 was key as he was ‘very open to developing this approach’. 

He adds: “My role is merely to set the parameters and to oversee that journey. Others have played an equally significant role, if not more so. The Chief Constable has shown exemplary leadership and ours is a supportive relationship where we’re able to discuss issues freely and openly.”

HMICFRS’ 2015 assessment of the force was about as damning as it gets, and Mr Hunter’s other aim was to ‘get out of the spotlight’ of the HMICFRS so the force to could move on.

“We needed to demonstrate an iron grip on operational performance. That gets you from a poor to a good, but you can’t achieve an outstanding just by trying hard. You have to do things differently. There has to be ownership and innovation. That is what we are now trying to embed in the force.”

“We are examining what that looks like in terms of training, attitudinal changes, cultural changes and performance. Those are the conversations we are having now.”

Legitimacy gap

Despite the turnaround the force has undergone in the last three years, Mr Hunter remains frustrated at the lack of external recognition of the force’s achievements.

He finds there is little interest at council meetings beyond whether they ‘have a PCSO in their ward’, but also local news reporting has failed to acknowledge the progress the force has made which Mr Hunter believes is a conscious editorial decision. He also believes the media’s ‘bad spin on whatever happens’ approach has wider implications for policing.

“There is a problem with the media shaping the stories. It undermines what we are trying to do in terms of building public confidence, but I am also concerned that it is contributing to a legitimacy gap that is opening up in policing. That is an issue.”

An important aspect of Mr Hunter’s outcome-based approach is that it is long-term, yet time is not on the side of elected politicians and 2020 will see another round of PCC elections. Mr Hunter has announced his intention to stand again. Much has been achieved, but whether it is enough for the public to re-elect him remains to be seen.

Policing Insight is published by CoPaCC, an independent organisation established shortly after the first Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections in November 2012 to monitor policing governance in England and Wales. It provides a platform for stakeholders in policing and criminal justice to share knowledge, insight and opinion. Visit



Posted on Wednesday 18th December 2019