HR challenges presented by the nature of the police service

We explore the unusual nature of the police service and the challenges that this creates for HR.

Policing context - challenges for HR

There are a number of features of the police service that create specific challenges for those delivering HR support. These are set out below.


The police service is an emergency service, which has to function 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365/366 days a year. Resourcing is a key issue, as is the availability of officers and staff with the right operational skills, so that forces can respond to day-to-day business and major incidents at all times. Police officers and staff have to work at times when other people do not, and bank holidays and Christmas and new year periods are particularly busy. HR issues can arise at any time of the day or night, and problems may occur when HR staff are not available to provide support and advice.

Command and control

The police service is a disciplined, uniformed service with a hierarchical, rank-based structure. This structure works well for dealing with major incidents and operational issues for which clarity of responsibility and decision-making are critical. The structure and nature of the service may, at times, be less suited to the management of a large and complex organisation with a diverse workforce, where a more open and flexible style is necessary. HR departments need to be able to work with both the traditional, hierarchical structure and modern leadership and management models, as required.

Police officers v police staff

There are differences between police officers and police staff in culture, motivation and approach that can create tensions within the workforce, particularly where police staff are subject to job losses. Police staff often feel that they are less well served by the training and career development processes that their police officer colleagues enjoy. There is the challenge of creating a "single workforce" culture that ensures that all staff are able to work effectively together to meet the force's objectives.

Tactical v strategic

Police officers are well trained to respond to incidents and to solve immediate problems quickly and effectively. However, planning tends to be short term. The rapid movement and promotion of more senior officers can also lead to a focus on the short and medium term rather than longer-term strategic planning.

Public expectations

As is the case with most public services, public expectations on the police have increased in recent years and, while much of the focus has been on reducing crime, the agenda has shifted towards raising public confidence in policing. There is a much greater emphasis on public consultation and giving the public a range of opportunities to influence the shape of policing where they live. This, coupled with increasing expectations in relation to diversity and integrity (see below), means that there are considerable demands made on police officers and staff in the way that they deliver a service to the public.


The police service has been the subject of considerable criticism for major failings around diversity in terms of service delivery and internal management. The police workforce is not generally representative of the communities that it serves and arguably it loses some degree of legitimacy and effectiveness as a result. Consequently, a great deal of emphasis is placed on equality and diversity in relation to every aspect of forces' activities and there is considerable internal and external scrutiny of forces in relation to diversity issues.

Professional standards and integrity

Similarly, public confidence in the police can be maintained only by ensuring the highest standards of integrity and professionalism. There are detailed codes of conduct and ethics for police officers and staff with great emphasis placed on investigating public complaints about their behaviour both on and off duty. All staff are carefully vetted on appointment and subsequently to ensure that integrity and professional standards are not compromised.

Public and media scrutiny

The public and the media take a very keen interest in the police service and any incidents involving police forces or individual officers and staff quickly become a matter of public interest and comment. HR issues that would not normally come within the public domain in other organisations can quickly become the subject of intrusive media coverage. HR personnel need to take this into account when planning major HR initiatives, communicating with staff or dealing with individual discipline or grievance situations or employment tribunal cases.

Unique and challenging culture

The police service is often described as having a unique and challenging culture for those working within it. The features described above make it a very different operating environment to other organisations, for HR professionals.

The nature of police work means that it requires a degree of healthy cynicism and a challenging approach. This can, at times, be reflected in a willingness to challenge HR policies and procedures. In addition, police work is often fast paced, which creates considerable pressures on those delivering HR support services.

Individual police forces vary considerably and there are variations in style and culture, stemming from local and regional differences and the leadership and management styles of different chief constables.

Budget reductions

In common with the rest of the public sector, the police service faces substantial reductions in operating budgets to meet Government targets to reduce the national budget deficit. As over 80% of force budgets relate directly to staffing costs, the service will need to undergo a major re-think of its existing employment and deployment models. The numbers of police officers and police staff are reducing, which is creating considerable pressure on forces to reduce "back office" and support functions so that front-line policing can be protected. Reviews of internal structures, closer cooperation and sharing of services between forces and other agencies are all likely to provide major challenges for HR in the police service.

Strategic HR issues

The former National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) produced "A people strategy for policing in England and Wales 2008-2013", which set out the HR strategy for the service and individual forces. It was approved by the Home Office, the Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers as the first service-wide HR strategy, providing a framework for the development of local HR strategies and the support to be provided at national level by the NPIA in relation to people and development issues.

The key areas of the strategy were:

  • workforce design - developing a national workforce plan for the police service to ensure the correct mix of skills and experience, and to create a diverse workforce reflecting the communities that it serves;
  • resourcing and career progression - ensuring the selection, development and promotion of the best staff, with the right skills and knowledge to deliver the policing service;
  • leadership and talent management - developing a national plan to grow leadership talent at all levels in the service and to ensure effective succession planning (see also the NPIA's "Leading policing: a strategy for the 21st century");
  • learning and development - developing the skills and knowledge of the policing workforce to focus on priority business needs;
  • technology and science - ensuring the best use of technology to improve HR and policing practice;
  • communication and engagement - ensuring that staff are fully engaged and involved in their work and that they can receive feedback on their own and the force's performance and can contribute their own views and comments;
  • managing and maximising people performance - creating high-performance working environments with clarity of purpose and regular feedback and where poor performance is addressed; and
  • reward and recognition - supporting the development of reward frameworks that apply remuneration fairly and efficiently and enable the recruitment, retention and motivation of excellent people.

With the abolition of the NPIA and the changes in governance arrangements at force and national level, a new national HR strategy has not yet been developed. Therefore, the NPIA strategy continues to be relevant beyond 2013.