The Canadian Review of Policing Research (2005)

ISSN: 1710 6915


James Drennan

Professor Drennan is a police educator in the Police Studies Degree Program of the Justice and Public Safety Institute at Georgian College in Ontario. He served under the international oversight process and the Policing Board of Northern Ireland as Director of the Police College of Northern Ireland between 2002 and 2005

On November 1, 2001, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) became the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Northern Ireland had been a society in religious and sectarian conflict for a generation, and the long-standing RUC was regarded as serving the interests of neither the Nationalists (Republicans) nor the Unionists (Loyalists). A vision for a new beginning for policing in Northern Ireland was provided by the Independent Commission on Policing of Northern Ireland. It recommended a program of change unprecedented for any police service in the democratic world:

It is essential that policing structures and arrangements are such that the police service is professional, effective and efficient, fair and impartial, free from partisan political control: accountable, both under the law for its actions and to the community it serves; representative of the society it polices, and operates within a coherent and cooperative criminal justice system, which conforms with human rights norms.1

The changes introduced were far reaching and swift. The PSNI was reduced from 13,500 to about 10,000 police and civilian members, and measures introduced to ensure that the predominantly Protestant police service recruited and maintained an equal proportion of Catholic members. Under a severance plan, hundreds of members elected to retire. Police buildings, structures, policies, practices, uniforms and markings were all changed and many of the traditions of the old RUC abandoned. No less than seven governmental and non-governmental oversight and governance mechanisms were introduced to monitor, question, advise and direct the police service. Since then, many members of the service have struggled with the loss of their traditional identity, while others have simply refused to accept the change. Moreover, among those who retired were 1,500 seasoned senior officers who, in many cases, were replaced by less experienced officers.

It was clear from the outset that the PSNI would require a leadership approach different from that of the past. The prevailing command and control style would have to yield to more collaborative and accountable leadership practices requiring conceptual ability, critical thinking, business administrative skills, and community awareness. As the Oversight Commission reports and PSNI occupational psychologists had already observed, one of the most critical problems in the PSNI was the lack of problem-solving ability at all organizational levels, and the new cadre of managers lacked the skills to develop others.

It was clear that a transition in thinking had to occur quickly to help the police change their values and beliefs so they could deal with a community with which they had seldom interacted in the past, and ensure that both Catholics and Protestants were equally served. In order to make a successful transition from crime control policing to one of community-centred and community-driven action, more than physical structures had to change; real behavioural change had to take place in both police and community members alike. Doing “What was right” as opposed to doing “Who was right” required a significant shift in ethical thinking. There had to be an integrated program that focussed on behavioural change (a means strategy) rather than one that merely addressed difficult issues in the society of Northern Ireland (an ends strategy). The usual process models of leadership alone would be ineffective for solving community and police problems where a partnership approach was required. A program for bringing this change about therefore had to be found.

A model capable of achieving comprehensive and lasting change through practical learning was the “Leadership Grid” developed in the 1960s by Blake and Mouton.2 The research of these two social scientists had identified a way of achieving balance between carrying out necessary tasks and considering the ideas and views of those carrying out the tasks. The Leadership Grid therefore promised a strategic approach to the PSNI for overcoming barriers to change and organisational effectiveness. Other leadership development programs did not offer the same experiential component that the Grid offered. Nor did they include the critical feedback sessions that helped show how people really behaved when the stakes were high.

In the spring of 2003, a proposal to hold joint police and community seminars was accepted and a year-long pilot scheme was put in motion. The Canadian company of, which is affiliated with Grid International, went to Belfast to plan for ongoing sessions over a two-year period. The plan also incorporated extensive evaluation and assessment of the program.

A four-day intensive Leadership Grid learning program was launched. Police and civilian participants from every area of the Service were chosen to take part, and reviews of every seminar took place. Community members, government officials, and experts were also invited into the seminars to ensure transparency. Members of external police services, including the Garda Siochana Police, or Police of the Republic of Ireland, the Centrex Police College (formerly Bramshill) of England, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Swedish Police Service, and the Latvian National Police joined the PSNI members in the seminars. The Chief Constable of the PSNI and his entire senior police and civilian command team took the seminar in June 2004 after hearing one consistent message from their employees that “the Chief Constable and his team must complete this program if it is going to have any lasting effect on our organisation”. In addition, the PSNI occupational psychologists attended the extensive program to ensure that there was a quality control element in the entire program review.

With the Grid model came a system of evaluation and assessment that proved to be of great importance in raising the quality and impact of the change program. The Grid session results were consistently assessed and reviewed by both the program provider and by the service command structure, and measures were developed to assess the long-term, organization-wide impact on police members and their communities.

The Results

The results of the Grid program were extremely satisfactory. The program proved to be a pragmatic and beneficial program for achieving true change management. It provided a functional, hands-on learning experience that required total individual involvement. Already there is a noticeable improvement in leadership skills, which has led to a corresponding improvement in the organizational philosophy of “policing with the community, any community”.

It was evident from the evaluation and feedback on completion of the learning, that everyone believed they had never worked so hard on any similar course or program. There seemed to be a positive correlation between the appreciation of the Grid learning experience and the heavy workload required to complete the course. But it was sound practical exposure built on a sound theoretical foundation that had led to the success of the Grid across the PSNI.

A consistent observation of participants was that the Grid development program had not only been the best learning ever undertaken, but that it had really changed their lives. The general view was that in addition to improving personal behaviour and ability to solve problems in teams, it had achieved the same for the organization. Most participants commented that it would forever change the way they approached decision-making and problem-solving in their daily work and home lives. The program offered many valuable lessons for all levels of the police service, and to police and civilian members alike.

As a result of the success of the program, the PSNI executive top team, through the Chief Constable, stated that the Grid would be the future model for leadership development through problem solving and decision making. Given the benefits across the service from the more than 500 members who have already passed through the Grid learning program, a five-year plan was recently adopted to develop a critical mass of Grid-experienced leaders within the PSNI. Moreover, the Northern Ireland Department of Education, the executive management team of the University of Ulster, and others have determined that similar development through the Leadership Grid would be of benefit to their own organizations.

The Leadership Grid program has proven to be a significantly important aid to transition in the PSNI and it has done it by providing one of the most valuable learning events ever experienced by that organization. In short, everyone who has taken it has liked it, learned it, and stated that its application would make a real difference in their human interactions, problem-solving, communication, decision-making and conflict resolution.

End Notes

1. Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland, Belfast: Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, 1999, p.5. Document available at

2. R. Blake and J.S. Mouton, Building a Dynamic Corporation Through Grid Organizational Development, Reading, Mass: 1969, Addison-Wesley.