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Can ‘thinkers’ help the ‘doers’ do what they do? Reflecting on the role of universities in policing practice



Written by Mark Manning

One of the greatest joys of my life has been flying gliders and light aircraft and, in that respect, I considered myself to be a ‘competent doer’. One day, someone suggested that I should become an instructor and I set off on that path… I could demonstrate the flying and teaching skills but then came the theory! ‘I am a competent doer. Why did I need that?’ I asked.  No one was impressed, and so, I turned up for the theory course, albeit cynically. I was not surprised to be surrounded by those whom I considered to be ‘thinkers’ including the lecturer who was a serious thinker.

Whilst I dozed in the corner, I heard the others waxing lyrical about ‘lift’ and ‘drag’ and was horrified at one stage to see some hieroglyphics on the whiteboard, that when translated, would read like this: ‘L=Coefficient of lift x density x velocity squared x wing area and for good measure, divided by two’. I considered these people to be serious thinkers and I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but they did, and they knew they did. We came to an arrangement that if I stayed awake, smiled and nodded in the right places, I would get through the course. Pride intact, I self-proclaimed that it didn’t matter to me because I was a competent doer.

Except, over the years, I observed these characters, or others like them, and noticed that on good summer days, they would disappear into the distance and not return for many hours, and when they did, they would be full of exuberance- telling tales of ‘derring-do’ and how they had flown 200-300 or 500-kilometre flights, not bad without an engine! Meanwhile, this competent doer (yours truly) had flown around the block half a dozen times with students. I came to realise that, perhaps, I had misjudged these characters and they were, in fact, a useful breed of what I shall call ‘thinker-doers’.

Now thinker doers have some appeal to me because they are receptive enough to understand what the thinkers say, but they can demonstrate enough practical competence to appeal to the doers. They could prove this by their long flights and how their knowledge of theory and practice, allowed them to extract every inch of performance from their gliders with a full understanding of the meteorological conditions on that day. I came to realise that I had my feet in the wrong camp but why so, and could I change? More importantly, why does any of this matter?

In my capacity as a lecturer and PhD student at the University of Suffolk, my interests fall within Criminology as part of the School of Law and Social Science, and more specifically, youth justice and policing. Now, anyone who has any interest in public services will know that is it claimed that money is very tight, and interest has turned to how things can be done more efficiently or effectively and with less money.

I do not claim to be an expert, but this has led me to being involved in delivering short courses to the police on ‘Evidence-Based Policing (EBP)’ as well as evaluative research on youth justice and police practices in Suffolk. This involves making the best use of theory and research to develop ‘what works’ strategies, and properly implemented, they should help the police achieve their goal of maximising the effective deployment of their reduced resources. Sounds good, doesn’t it?  This approach also has the full backing of the government and the newly formed College of Policing. So, is everyone a winner? If you scour ‘Twitter’, ‘Facebook’, or any other social media sites, you will find any number of disgruntled competent doers, many of whom are not too happy about EBP or any of the other proposals from the College of Policing, such as, degree routes for constables or direct entry into ‘management’.

These doers often have many years of experience and when you ask where they gained their experience, they will happily tell you that they were taught by a competent doer and then developed their skills over many years on ‘the streets’. I have the highest regard for the police service and I believe that they are full to the brim of competent doers and arguably, there is nothing wrong with their views per se but why do they feel this way? This raises the questions: ‘has there been a breakdown in communication in which competent doers were not given sufficient explanation of how their role has been assessed?’ and ‘how are the very skills that they proudly employ been determined to be the equivalent of a degree level?’

My real point, however, is that the police service cannot do without competent doers, but maybe there is also a requirement to develop a stronger culture of thinker-doers through closer links with transformational universities*. The Police are working hard to develop a new culture but maybe there is a middle ground—in which the police service and other public services can flourish without being replaced completely by thinkers (who certainly have something to offer). This new culture would be characterised by a healthy balance of thinker doers and competent doers, and with Universities playing their role of fostering this new culture, as against replacing the one that already exists.

So where have these ramblings taken me, am I now a thinker doer?


* The University of Suffolk is a transformational university, absorbing the best of UK university traditions and aligning them with a twenty first century audience. It has a very healthy balance of thinkers, thinker-doers and doers, all working together for the benefit of our students.

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