Softly, softly: senior management development and the police

How do large public organisations decide how to train and develop their senior staff? For those of us who believe that skills development matters, and who fear that senior managers are often under-trained and poorly qualified, this is a critical question. It should also concern those who run large public organisations, who should be aware that many of their own staff, as well as the wider public, think their managers treat training and development events as perks and jollies.

Here’s a case that reinforces this damning stereotype. In February 2012, the Independent Police Complaints Commission reported on allegations that the Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police had wrongly claimed £11,750 for personal development training. The alleged wrong-doing was brought to light by journalists writing about the cost of coaching and mentoring programmes, who found that DCC Adam Briggs had claimed more than any other senior officer in Britain, despite receiving an annual allowance of £10,000 to cover the costs of training and medical insurance.

It looked to me as this episode might shed some light on the way that a major public organisation reached decisions about the training and development of its senior staff. Briggs’ letter of appointment stated that how he spent his annual allowance for training and medical insurance was entirely at the discretion of the post-holder. Moreover, the IPCC discovered that the spending was not auditable; all Briggs had to do, apparently, was claim his £10,000.

This was hard to credit. North Yorkshire Police is a large organisation by any standards. Its People Strategy’sets out an ambitious agenda for develop the skills and capabilities required, and identifies how progress will be measured. I therefore wrote to the North Yorkshire Police on 31 May asking for a copy of their policy on personal development funds, and for the guidance issued to senior officers on their management of these funds. Well over the limits specified in the Freedom of Information Act, I received a reply from North Yorkshire Police on 30 July, telling me that they were unable to find any such policies or guidance.

What Briggs claimed for, outside and beyond the training allowance that he had been given, was a programme of executive coaching and mentoring. To provide this he employed Steve Gorton, previously a manager in the pharmaceutical industry who claims to teach Masters’ courses for several universities, including the OU. After almost two years, the Force’s chief finance officer spotted the invoices, and asked why the contract had not gone through the usual procurement procedures.

So the employer was treating senior management development as a purely personal matter. Briggs refused to tell the IPCC whether and how he spent his £10,000 annual training allowance. During his time in North Yorkshire, Briggs received £31,647 for personal training, and we are still none the wiser as to how he used that money. Senior officers continue to enjoy a personal development allowance, and the Force has no apparent policy or guidance on how it is spent.

Of course, the whole episode tells us something about the North Yorkshire Police Authority. First, the IPCC reported that Briggs simply avoided questions by delaying his response; and that is pretty much how the Force handled my FOIA request. Second, although NYPA became aware of Briggs’ wrong-doing in July 2010, it tried to stop IPCC investigating the affair. When IPCC insisted, NYPA allowed Briggs to retire in February 2011, with his pension intact. His retirement meant that no action could be taken against him, even though the IPCC found behaviour amounting to gross misconduct. Third, despite the shenanigans of the last three years, NYPA apparently still has no policy governing the use of personal development funds.

From a skills perspective, what we learn is just how lacking in strategy some large employers are when it comes to training. It is suitably ironic that Briggs’ dodgy claim was for coaching by someone who claims to teach corporate strategy in MBAs. Yet his Force leaves its senior managers to decide how to spend their training allowance, with no guidance or auditing. For all we know, it might be spent on anything.

Is this how North Yorkshire Police treat training decisions for all staff? The answer is, of course, that lower down in the food chain, the NYPA is highly prescriptive about its training budgets. Its goal of creating an agile workforce’is underpinned by a cross cutting concern with Value for Money and a strategic concern with Improved Confidence (the upper case is emphasised in the relevant strategy papers). So there is a stark contrast between the NYP’s lax approach to senior management development and a more forensic strategy for skills and qualifications for the rest of its workforce. All this at a time of retrenchment in the Force’s budget.

I fear that this case is not unique, and that other large organisations treat senior management development as a private perk rather than a strategic organisational investment. Meanwhile, I imagine that the Briggs revelations have had a highly predictable impact on the way that senior management development is perceived within the Force and probably more widely. Trainers are used to dealing with a culture of cynicism, and such stories make their job harder.