Leadership lessons from policing during the pandemic

Martin Hewitt was appointed Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council in April 2019, one year before the COVID-19 pandemic. He spoke to NLC’s network of Chief Executives in May 2021 about his key lessons from the crisis.

A picture of Martin Hewitt sitting at a desk, smiling.

I was pleased to speak to the National Leadership Centre’s network of public sector leaders at an event in May 2021. In my talk, I shared four key lessons I have learned as Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council over this very challenging year for police services. Across the public sector and beyond, there have been extraordinary moments of exceptional service; leaders working and learning together will help make these new things part of our non-crisis life.

It’s all about communication 

We already knew this, but the COVID-19 pandemic really brought this point home for me: communicating effectively is absolutely essential. I spent a lot of time focusing on this – how and when I communicated – as I needed to consider the respective needs of key stakeholders, other police chiefs, the Home Office, wider government, and of course the public. 

In addition to the various meetings and committees that were implemented at a senior level, I also considered how knowledge and up-to-date information could be shared across the whole police service. Every time regulations changed, the National Police Chief’s Council, working with The College of Policing, produced a guidance document that went out to every police force across the UK in our own language so that our staff understood them and knew what action to take.

One of my major challenges was managing the media. I needed to both manage the increased scale of media questions and respond at pace, and ensure my communications reflected a collective position across police forces. In response, I set up regular monthly meetings with the Crime Reporters Association to share open and transparent updates, explain any developments in our approaches, and increase understanding of our current priorities. 

Fundamentally, it’s all about having effective and timely communication; if you can get that bit right, it buys you credit in relation to those things you can’t easily control. 

Understand the critical success measures

I had to understand quickly what the critical success points were during this pandemic. We knew personal protective equipment (PPE) was becoming a major critical issue and we identified this rapidly as a key success criteria for our staff. As a colleague said, “you can’t police at two metres distance.” This really resonated with me, as PPE was not only critical for the wellbeing of our officers and staff, but for our ability to deliver an essential service safely for the public. 

We established the PPE requirements for our officers, and developed a logistics operation to manage and run the roll out. After that, it meant that there was never a point where officers didn’t have the kit they needed. 

Partnership working

As we move forward, it is important to take the best of what we’ve learnt and implemented through COVID-19 into our normal business cycles, without it negatively impacting our individual professional roles and responsibilities. For me, this is about maintaining trust and independence, and also being visible. 

Over the course of the pandemic, my relationships with stakeholders have changed and evolved. There are some stakeholders that I have needed to build much closer relationships with due to the frequent communication and collaboration that was essential at the time. We now need to reconsider these routines and rhythms, and agree what the right balance is in a post-pandemic world.

We have all made new arrangements and new partnerships as leaders across the public sector, and we need to understand which of those did and didn’t work in a crisis, and what we can develop and take forward. 

Personal resilience

I admit that I got this dramatically wrong at the beginning – I didn’t rest at all. I think the pandemic was almost overwhelming at the beginning with how much was going on so rapidly. As leaders, we often feel we have to bear the burden, but that’s not necessarily the case. I had to be strongly encouraged to take time off myself and really think about how I look after myself. I had a ‘lightbulb moment’ when I realised that you are no use to anybody if you are not making good decisions. A lesson for me is to learn what you can do to relieve the pressure on yourself.

I hope you find the lessons I have shared useful as we navigate ourselves through this pandemic and begin to look to the future. We have seen a phenomenal amount of collaboration through COVID-19 and I believe it’s really important to continue that partnership working, and embed those communication structures into our business as usual moving forward.

Read the full Public Leaders Report: Supporting the NHS in its hour of need · Collaborating places · Extraordinary resilience and service · What do we know about public sector leaders · Looking ahead to 2022