Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance
We are joined by John Bloomer, Chief Finance Officer at Staffordshire Police, CIPFA member and participant in CIPFA's Achieving Finance Excellence in Policing programme.
He delves into the evolution of Staffordshire Police as a whole, as well as the role of the finance team in driving the organisation's objectives forward. He also discusses the importance of investing in people as part of a new Future Leaders Academy at Staffordshire.
Staffordshire Police recently won a Public Finance Award for finance team of the year. Could you tell us about your journey leading up to your big win?
Staffordshire Police have been on a three-year journey across finance, commercial services and across the organisation. I have been in the role of CFO for just over three years now, and having seen this programme through, a number of points on the journey come to mind.
As with any strong finance transformation programme, there have been multiple facets as well as challenges along the way. These did shape our journey, but ultimately did not change where we landed - which was in line with the vision we set both for who we are as a team and what we want to be corporately. Setting out our manifesto was important, but we also had our eyes wide open that going through such change would never be smooth sailing! Speaking truth to power is incredibly important but rarely comfortable.
We needed to be really honest about the financial and non-financial challenges ahead, where we were and where we wanted to go. In our case, this meant talking and acting at some pace about the burning platform we found ourselves on and supporting decision makers to make difficult choices. It was also important to establish some quick wins – classic transformation territory but this sets the direction early on and provides the impetus to move on to the next stage.
It's all about the people. Sounds a little cliche, but also involves being honest with people about their role in the journey you have embarked on and supporting those who do not want to go on that journey. We have been really open to people from different backgrounds and life experiences, putting diversity at the heart of what we do. This has brought in people who you wouldn#t traditionally see in policing or the wider local authority sector. Our initial restructure saw around a quarter of our team change but taking those who wished to go on the journey with us at all times was really important.
Finally, invest in your team and build for the future – we have a number of the team studying for their CIPFA Professional Qualifications, CIPS and AAT as well as launching schemes for apprentices across finance and commercial services. We were taken aback by the response to our adverts for apprentice roles and the quality of applicants putting themselves forward.
The outcome of all of this has been that our financial health has been transformed over a three-year period. The force has found the headroom to invest in new technologies and teams as well as seeing the role of finance and commercial advisory being embedded in the business which drives better business results.
For those who aren't aware of Staffordshire Police's FLA programme, could you explain what it is and provide some details?
We modelled this on the Future Leaders Academy offered as part of the Achieving Financial Excellence in Policing package run by CIPFA. For us, this has covered some of the key competencies that we expect from our managers but tailored so that the programme worked with our own internal governance structures and approach to programme management. Importantly, the programme builds in peer support and that safe space to have honest conversations as a group away from senior management.
Why is now the right time for police to invest in people development and future leaders?
I would say that it's always the right time to invest in people. Often in austere times the first thing we cut back on is training and development - but this is the wrong thing to do. Many CFOs would talk about challenges in recruiting qualified staff in recent years and this in my view is a consequence of cutting back on training in previous years.
For Staffordshire, the "now" element was around taking our leadership to a new level, investing back into our managers who have been the real engine of change as well as bonding across a team that had recently moved into a shared services arrangement providing services to Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service. Personally, I believe that investing in your team is a really good way to keep people engaged with the organisation as they feel the organisation is invested in them. I strongly believe a more engaged finance team will pay dividends several times over.
How does this project also help support non-finance members of the team?
Alongside the members of finance and commercial services, we also included members from estates services. But wider than this the benefits are that we better understand our role and the role of others in a team, as well as lifting our own performance to the next level.
Do you have any future predictions/challenges for the police sector, and how will this programme help mitigate them?
I reflect on my tenure as the Section 151 Officer and in that time, I have already seen austerity, followed by quite rapid organisational growth through the Uplift programme and then on to a period of reacting to COVID-19.
Each of these presented new challenges. On reflection, it is probably as hard to shrink an organisation as it is to grow one well. As for the future I see several challenges - some linked to the recovery from the pandemic in relation to some form of austerity or reduced funding growth versus expectations both for the service but also within our strategic partners. Working in partnership has the power to significantly improve the lives of those we serve as public servants but crucially for policing to reduce demand on the service and the impact crime has on victims and witnesses.
Future challenges abound around the changing nature of crime, whether this be online, cross border or local crime versus the public expectation for traditional "invisibility." For our force, by the end of our Uplift programme in 2022/23 we will see about a third of our organisation be "new" since the programme started and whilst this is a fantastic opportunity, we also need to nurture these individuals in the formative years of their careers.
We see employee wellbeing as central to our organisational mission. It isn't just a uniform; it is a human being and our role as a business enabler is actually more important than ever in supporting this agenda – we see ourselves as being an enabling service as opposed to a non-front line or back-office service. For us having an engaged team, with the right skills in the right place, helps support the challenges and leverage the opportunities the organisation faces.
Do you have any advice for others in the police sector who are considering this type of investment?
I would recommend investing in the heart of your team, middle leaders, as these are the people that really drive your business forward on a day-to-day basis. One of my observations having come into policing from local government is that people look up far more for leadership in policing rather than within. Empowering our people is key to driving forward our agenda as well as supporting the organisation's agenda.
Contact Alison Dewhirst for more information.