The world is full of good and bad ideas. It always seems that this idea or that idea is found wanting or wrong or, quite frankly, stupid and yet we are never shocked when a decade later the same notion is brought back for another run.
I have seen countless law enforcement ideas offered up to improve everything from patrol procedures to recruiting to community policing. The failure of any of these is almost never remembered or evaluated or critiqued because actual institutional learning does not occur. So once those with institutional memory have all retired or been reassigned, someone resurrects the failed idea.
This doesn’t mean the idea itself was necessarily bad, but rather that we seem to have a hard time perceiving that implementation is vastly more difficult than anyone seems to understand. And whether we are talking about public or private sectors it behooves us to reflect on why good ideas fail, or worse, become bad ideas.
First, the very formulation of a policy or program is often a reflective response to some crisis or issue and ends up being driven by emotion and urgency instead of rational evaluation and research. The classic book, “Criminal Justice Planning” by O’Neill, Bykowski, and Blair, provides a framework for a “Systems Approach” to planning, which offers an Aristotelian Method where logic, analysis, and reason enable leaders and planners to come up with rational plans, create a learning organization that improves its understanding of the problem being solved, and determine if the plan designed to solve it is working or not.
Systems thinking allows us to ask ourselves who, what, when, and how does a program or policy affect, not only the organization, but also the community it will impact as well. The authors of “Criminal Justice Planning” bring into focus issues like funding, personnel, timetables, and feedback mechanisms essential to making a program or project a reality. This approach helps departments become learning organizations as well.
Once a plan is adopted, the next problem law enforcement faces is implementation. Have you ever noticed how often procedures become the dominant trait of a program? Instead of the intended outcomes of the program driving the solution of the problem (as they should), following the outline becomes the focus. Too often law enforcement is tasked with solving serious social issues that are far more complex than our resources, personnel, and scope of crime fighting can handle. The fact that the problem hasn’t even been rationally analyzed often impedes the very development of any solution that might deal with it.
Law enforcement leaders are under tremendous pressure to come up with immediate solutions for the problems presented to them, so I hope they will assign “Criminal Justice Planning” as required reading to their staffs to help them formulate effective plans. Then I hope they sit down and review Aaron Wildavsky’s “Implementation,” written originally in 1973, to analyze what went wrong with the Economic Development Administration’s Oakland Project. What originated as an idea to help Oakland develop and build better opportunities for the African-American community proved to be an example of how difficult a well-intended program can be to develop and implement.
Problems such as decision points, level of commitment, competing hierarchies, and the challenges of developing a learning organization are all covered by Wildavsky. Law enforcement, being hierarchical, often neglects to see how important the operational level of a program or policy is; the person doing the enforcement or activation is a critical component. The successful implementor not only makes the idea work, they also ensure that the agency becomes a learning organization that adapts and grows from the issues arising during implementation. They focus on the goals and results of the plan or program, instead of becoming distracted by procedures, paying proper attention to outcomes and feedback.
Too often millions of dollars and countless hours are spent on projects without developing a feedback loop to measure how effective the effort has been. Even worse, typically no adjustments are made to the process, and so no learning occurs. It is as if we started out as all knowing only to discover we were naïve and just wasting resources, solving nothing, and waiting for the next crisis to arise. We need to avoid these pitfalls at all costs if we are to engage in effective law enforcement in this new, challenging landscape.
Be a constantly learning crime fighter and encourage your agency to become a learning organization.
Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of “JD Buck Savage.” You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.