The role of the NPIA

The National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) serves nearly 300,000 staff in the policing community and its role is to make a unique contribution to public safety.


Chief People Officer Angela O’Connor’s remit covers three main areas, including the provision of all learning, development and leadership products, services and strategies in England and Wales.


This includes the international academy run by the NPIA, used to develop police officers and staff in the UK and overseas.


She is also involved in developing the first National People Strategy for policing, which was recently agreed by the National Police Board as well as running services as diverse as exams and assessments, specials and volunteers, recruitment of police officers and strategic advice on such areas as health and safety.


Ms O’Connor is also the Head of Profession for the HR community, an area which she says is developing knowledge management products and services and creating direction for the future.    


Leadership and sustainability

Chief People Officer for the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), Angela O’Connor, discusses achieving sustainability in leadership by creating an agreed direction and consensus for action.

Police Professional logoThe National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) was tasked with developing a leadership strategy for policing that had the support of the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities, the Home Office and the 43 independent police forces, and that also represented the views of the 300,000 people working in policing in England and Wales.

Chief People Officer Angela O’Connor has been involved with the first National People Strategy for policing, which was recently agreed by the National Police Board.

"Given that this was the first time that a national proposition on leadership would be brought together, we had quite a job on our hands," said Ms O’Connor.

Creating the strategy

"We decided to start by taking a film crew across England and Wales and gathering the views on camera of those who knew not only the problems to be faced in leadership - but also the solutions."

A 30-minute film was created from this project, and helped inform a strategy development that is underpinned by a number of strands of research that touched thousands within the police service. 

Ms O’Connor said that the need for a clear strategy is emphasised when brutal criminal cases occur, such as the unprovoked murders of Gary Newlove, Sophie Lancaster, Jimmy Mizen and  Anthony Walker.

"These are our citizens: men, women and children of different backgrounds, experiences and ethnicity," she said.

"The common factor is that they were all innocent victims of violence on our streets.  All died in meaningless, random, unexplainable acts.

"As a mother of two independent kids, one at university and one at school, nothing worries me more than their safety and the safety of my family, friends and neighbors. I know that many members of the public have the same concerns.

"We didn’t develop this leadership strategy to play academic games, to win plaudits or to support any particular theories of leadership.  We did it because contributing to safer communities is our priority," she added. 

The aims

The NPIA’s leadership strategy aims to achieve both a decrease in the amount of crime and a fall in the public’s fear of crime. It also intends to deliver engaged communities who have trust and confidence in their police service; a service that shows empathy and understanding to make "real connections between real people." Ms O’Connor said that the strategy also intends to create a responsive, efficient and connected police service, which is valued by the public and is working in partnership with others.

"Violent crime has fallen year on year since a peak in 1996 and yet the fear of crime continues to rise," she said.

"This leadership strategy will help police leaders to reassure our citizens by working with them to achieve safer communities - both in reality and in people’s perception of their neighbourhood."

The NPIA hopes to do this by helping those in the police service to gain the skills and confidence to truly engage with people and develop a shared understanding of their communities. This should include a knowledge of what are the hopes and fears in those communities; what do people want for their children, their neighbours and their friends and what are the particular policing issues in their neighbourhood?

"This strategy will help the service to focus on the citizen and remember that the call for service might be the 15th call of the shift for the officer on duty, but it may be the first time in the individual’s life that they have been a victim of crime and had to call the police," said Ms O’Connor.

"Or alternatively this is the 15th time their offices have been burgled and they really feel that no one cares or is doing anything about it."

The public wants to know that the police are there, will respond when called and will be professional. They also expect to be updated on incidents and treated as an individual with feelings and concerns. The increasing expectation of the police service matches increasing pressures on other services, as the public wants to know that taxpayer money is being spent well and not duplicated across different services. These are significant challenges for the police service and its leaders.

"This strategy focuses on better business skills and partnership working to deliver these outcomes," said Ms O’Connor.  

The increased public expectations and higher levels of operational and command accountability have added pressure onto forces. Ms O’Connor said there is also a greater need to drive out efficiencies and run complicated businesses, while at the same time there exists more complex police demands, such as the threat of counter terrorism and protective services.

"We need to work in partnership to produce long term improvements for the public," she said.

"What we have developed is a plan of action to respond to the business drivers for the police service over the next ten years."

These drivers include a number of complex and diverse challenges including community engagement, developing a performance culture, responding to increasing expectations and the demands of modern society and a shrinking hi-tech world, which means new types of crime and international crime. 

There are a number of contradictions and juxtapositions within these drivers, such as the need to protect children and the vulnerable and deal with anti-social behaviour, while at the same time responding to organised crime and the terrorist threat. This means that resources are stretched and issues have to be prioritised.

"The leadership strategy recognises these challenges and seeks to address the leadership issues at all levels within the police service and across both officer and staff roles," said Ms O’Connor.


The strategy’s aims include providing:

  1. a national career management built on a national talent management strategy and clear career paths
  2. a more integrated approach to development
  3. eontinuous professional development and personal development plans
  4. efficient workplace assessment and accreditation systems
  5. links to a national people strategy and alignment with HR systems and processes

"Our work has been subject to extensive consultation and has benefited from real engagement across the police service," said Ms O’Connor.

Key issues identified include not enough people coming forward for top roles - which means there is a need to take a national view of talent and address barriers and mobility problems.

"A national talent management system needs to be open and transparent and ensure that more women and black and minority ethnic (BME) people make it to leadership roles," she added.

A much more integrated programme of leadership products, which build on prior learning and connect with the real world of policing, is needed.  This, believes Ms O’Connor, means moving away from a focus on training towards continuous development on the job, via attachments and secondments, as part of an ongoing programme of leadership development.

"This approach recognises that the breadth of experience of senior police officers is often just policing. To address this gap there needs to be more secondments to other sectors to get the breadth of understanding needed to run a complex business and work in partnership. This learning needs to continue for everyone - including chief constables."

The systems and processes to support the strategy must be simple and effective. They must remove barriers to progression for women and members of the BME communities.

"We have to do more to attract and keep women and BME officers and staff in the service," said Ms O’Connor. "This means really examining the barriers - whether real or perceived - and supporting these individuals to achieve their potential.  The whole service needs to develop and learn to welcome diversity and difference in order to deliver the best service to the public. This will require work on beliefs and values and be potentially quite challenging for some within the service."

There should also be development that is specifically tailored to police officer and police staff needs. National standards will be created which apply to all development, some of which will be mandatory, and there will be links to academic institutions and formal accreditation.
"We must build in evaluation at the design phase," said Ms O’Connor.

Professionalising the service

The different development needs have to be addressed as the service professionalises. A finance professional needs support to develop their financial skills in the same way that a detective needs support to develop their investigative skills and this leadership strategy aims to recognise this.
"Professionalising the service means formal accreditation and links to academic institutions which specialise in leadership in the public service or in policing," said Ms O’Connor.

These links need to be re-invigorated so that officers and staff receive formal recognition of their leadership knowledge and skills.

As with all development, Ms O’Connor believes it is important to think about how the success of the intervention will be measured, during the design process rather than afterwards. There will be a lot of resource channelled in to leadership development and the service needs to focus on and know that it is achieving the outcomes for the public.


There are three main domain areas within the leadership strategy. The first incorporates incident command, including the use of firearms, public order or major sporting events, civil contingencies and counter-terrorism.

"Professional policing skills is currently reasonably well delivered within existing arrangements, however there is a recognition that the learning from Stockwell and other incidents needs to be integrated in to this domain area," said Ms O’Connor.

The feedback indicates a need to provide more about the context of policing in the UK and the key reports and incidents that have shaped UK policing.

There is also a need to have a broader understanding of sociology, criminology and socioeconomics to be able to make policing leadership decisions in today’s world.  The shrinking world requires a better understanding of international policing too.

"These additions will enhance the current arrangements and ensure there is a continual link between policing developments and leadership development." 

The third and final domain area is that of business skills. This is the area with the most need for improvement and focuses on running an efficient and effective business.  As the service professionalises and demands increase, it is vital that the specialist skills are developed and used.
"The police service is starting to recognise the importance of good business management knowledge and skills," said Ms O’Connor.

"The leaders of the service need to know how to get the best from the different professionals within the service so that each area can play its part in supporting the delivery of policing priorities."

Being able to communicate and connect with the workforce is the first step towards them communicating and connecting well with the public.  "Unless you value and embrace diversity as a leader and demonstrate this in your words and actions you will not build effective relationships and trust with members of every community or with all your people," she added. 

Leadership issues

"There are issues in relations to leadership that you do not always hear about", said Ms O’Connor.

"Resilience is an important part of personal sustainability. It can be lonely at the top!"

Senior leaders have roles of authority, high status, power and responsibility as well as some substantial salaries. Roles are high profile, often in the spotlight and under increasing scrutiny. Women and black and minority ethnic leaders often are utilised as role models, which increases the pressure they may feel.

"Leaders in our sector are often away from home a great deal and have to both demonstrate huge commitment and also make great sacrifices," said Ms O’Connor.

"There’s often in services such as policing a strong fear of failure or showing weakness and there are few people to share confidences with."

She feels that part of the job is to prepare leaders for both the pleasure of success and the dangers that they face, through appropriate personal development to understand their response to stress and to find healthy and appropriate ways to deal with this.

‘The holy trinity’ that is required to live a balanced life at leadership level is a skill that should be taught; the component parts are physical well-being, mental and psychological well-being and spiritual well-being.

"I am no advocate of a nanny state or organisations such as mine taking on a parental role, but I do believe in having honest and authentic conversations with aspiring leaders about their development as a 'whole person,' " said Ms O’Connor.

She believes it is important to coach future leaders on the potential pitfalls of their position and how they can manage their responses. Some staff can displace stress with very negative behaviours.

"We are responsible for helping those who will become leaders to build and maintain their personal resilience, support strategies and networks and learn to recognise when they are feeling the pressure and do something positive to help the situation," said Ms O’Connor.

"We recognise that developing and supporting leaders cannot be confined to their role, their job description or the hours that are officially 'on the job'. We are dealing with real people and the divide between work and life is as blurred for them as it is for all of us." 

The NPIA is working with The Centre for Organisational Health and Wellbeing at Lancaster, with Professor Cary Cooper. There, with other colleagues from a variety of sectors, research will be carried out on some of the key issues that impact on the health and well-being of leaders, and how what they do, say and act impacts on the whole organisation. 

Ms O’Connor believes that in organisations there is often too much time spent on creating intricate policies, processes, systems, governance models etc. Although all are useful and have their place, there can be a dangerous tendency to forget that all staff are human, that they have lives and relationships outside of the job, and experience circumstances and events that shape them as people.

"Staff cannot be treated as a homogenous ‘gloop’ who can be recipients of one size fits all HR practices," said Ms O’Connor.

She believes that some of the most useful work the NPIA can do includes providing coaching support, not just to existing leaders, but to those who are high potential.

"Many times when suggesting a coach or mentor there is surprise that the suggested person is very unlike the intended recipient," said Ms O’Connor. "I think that  this is where we can really add value - by putting people together who can articulate different perspectives, bring new ideas and create different dynamics in relationships and ways of being."

Staff in any role can benefit both from working with coaches and by offering support to others. A good leader needs to give, they need to share their knowledge and experience and that is as important in policing as anywhere else. 

Qualities of a leader

Ms O’Connor believes that passion, humility, vision, honesty, strength and authenticity are all important qualities for any leader.

"It is dispiriting to work with people who seem to feel nothing for the role that they enact eight hours a day, five days a week for 30 years," she said.

"Passion doesn’t have to be loud, exuberant or colourful - I have worked with a number of quiet, thoughtful and purposeful people who were passionate in their own way. What mattered was they cared, they had emotion for what they did and the people they worked with."

Humility is also essential, as although there are many times as leaders to be confident, strong and get your point across, it is also important to recognise that every human being is imperfect, and that a little humility goes a very long way.

"It’s strange that those who most seem to lack humility are not existing leaders, but those on the way up," said Ms O’Connor.

Vision is vital. "There’s an increasing understanding that those who need to create a compelling picture of the future, need to tell stories that count," she said.

The ability to portray to others the bigger picture is essential if they are to believe in their leader and be prepared to work for the same vision – on that is a compelling call to action.

"As Martin Luther King said: 'Take the first step in faith, you don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step'. You must be able to inspire people to take that step."

Honesty is a quality that all leaders must possess, particularly when putting forward controversial views or contradicting the views of colleagues.

"How many moments have you sat in meetings listening to people telling you: 'It’s all okay, we are doing great, and it’s all going marvellously.' "

When you know that it is complete nonsense. Jim Collins talks about 'confronting the brutal truth' and he is so right," said Ms O’Connor.

"One of my favourite leaders, Greg Dyke, had a wonderful way of dealing with this, he gave staff cards with 'cut the crap' on them to hold up when the truth was losing its way."

Much as organisations may want to ignore the truth about poor performance, poor relationships and poor customer service, issues must be urgently addressed. A leader who has the bravery to speak out and confront issues that are being ignored can bring real benefit to an organisation.

"Without this behaviour, improvement is not possible," said Ms O’Connor. As a new leader, standing up and speaking out is difficult, as it won’t make anyone popular with those who are anxious about the future, or wedded to their ways of doing things - but it is an essential component for progress.
This type of strength will bring progress, whereas those leaders who lack this "backbone" will bring about frustration with colleagues.

"The most frustrating times of my entire career have been working with senior people who are whelk-like in their composition," said Ms O’Connor. A lack of "steel" can lead to time wasted, money wasted and a raised level of stress among staff that work for such people.

"Weak leaders can create an epidemic of high stress levels in some organisations," said Ms O’Connor.

The type of leader who won’t deal with poor performance, stands by and watches teams self-destruct, allows blame and mistrust to surface and continually avoids conflict should be removed from position. 

"If they have survived for a long time by avoiding confrontation, ignoring the obvious, pretending life is fine in the face of evidence to the contrary, don’t waste your time trying to change them, get rid of them pronto. You will save the lives of many people whose blood pressure will return to normal and the ripples of removing a well manager will do wonders for morale."

Authenticity is also a desired quality. A book written by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, entitled:

'Why should anyone be lead by you?' - What it takes to be an authentic leader, suggests that the really effective leaders have 'an overarching sense of purpose together with sufficient self knowledge of their potential leadership assets – they don’t know it all but they know enough.'

"The book translates authenticity in a number of ways: A consistency between words and deeds, doing what it says on the tin e.g. being genuine; comfort within self; coherence in role performance - which means despite having to play different roles at different times, there is the communication of a consistent, underlying thread," said Ms O’Connor.

"The simple answer is that you need to be yourself – more – with staff.

"I’d like to offer my own analysis of the great leader, in the words of the Berrocca advert "it’s you, but on a really good day"."