A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get a place on a top management course with many of the brightest and best hopefuls in the public and private sectors. One session was led by an MD from a large privatised business. It was an inspirational session, but inevitably focused on commercial enterprise rather than the public services. When asked what advice he had for those of us left in public service, his reply was to the point: 'Good luck, I wouldn't have your job!'
Why not? His answer: there are too many competing priorities, with too much political interference and too many controls. This assessment still holds good, but for the contemporary police service he could have added the challenge of meeting ever-growing Government and public expectations, in a genuinely difficult operating environment, with budgets that are shrinking in real terms.
Claims to be working in a 'unique' operating environment must always be cautiously made, but the police service's environment is certainly unusual. There are 43 forces of varying size in England and Wales that must simultaneously deal with noisy neighbours and local anti-social behaviour, provide reassurance patrol and rapid response to emergencies, and investigate serious and organised crime and terrorism.
Governance is split three ways: between the Home Secretary, local police authorities and chief constables. The Home Office 'helps' by providing a National Community Safety Plan, which notionally sets six principal national objectives, but in reality sets 150. There is also an array of national legislation, policies, 'doctrines', guidance and principles - also intended to 'help'.
Progress in the implementation of these is assessed by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and other inspectorates. And how do they do that? Through evidence provided by lots of lovely bureaucracy - which, of course, the Home Office and the inspectorates in turn condemn. Somewhere among all this, local forces must identify community needs and set about meeting them.
There are, inevitably, plenty of critics of police leadership, but the truth is that the best can hold their own against any comparisons, and the collective leadership does a pretty good job. Results show this to be the case. Crime is substantially down. My own force, for instance, is seeing levels last witnessed in the early 1990s. In the past 30 years, the police service has coped with internal social unrest and two prolonged terrorist campaigns against the UK, as well as implementing a plethora of new legislation.
Of course, we have our all-too-public failures, but we have responded with a determination to put things right. The police service has got off the reactive treadmill and at last spends time properly meeting the triple challenges of community policing, response and serious crime investigation. That much of the media and some politicians choose not to recognise this progress is something they must answer for - it does the public no service that they fail to do so.
Yet challenges remain, and the leadership of the service will need to strengthen itself if progress is to be maintained. For one thing, the operating environment is likely to get worse. Public spending cuts will squeeze delivery at the margins, and the Home Secretary's decision last year not to meet the Police Arbitration Tribunal's findings on police pay has seriously damaged morale.
This is, therefore, no time for a crisis in senior management. There isn't one - at least not yet - but there could be. Numbers coming forward for promotion to chief officer rank are in decline, a fact not helped by falling pay and worsening conditions of service, and by the Home Office's failure to properly manage senior police training and chief officer selection processes. So what can be done to avert a severe decline at a critical time in our history?
In my opinion, one essential move is to rule out the introduction of 'direct entry' at chief officer level from outside organisations, or 'elected commissioners'. The senior police leadership of the British Isles is highly unusual in having a single point of entry: the office of constable. This is a great strength. It ensures that chief officers have the experience to handle the big incidents and operations when they reach the top, and to empathise with their officers and staff. It also helps ensure that the service remains extraordinarily detached from politics, even by the standards of democracies.
However, we are in danger of not getting the balance right. The police service is not attracting enough top graduates, and the remedies that have been proposed are inordinately weak. It is time to introduce a new form of fast-track promotion that gives those destined for leadership early recognition and then whisks them through the junior ranks quickly.
After that, the Home Office needs to find a bit of courage. It must simplify police priorities, dump the bureaucracy and then let the senior leaders lead.
Dr Tim Brain has been chief constable of Gloucestershire Constabulary since 2001 and is now one of the country's senior chief constables. He previously held senior posts in the West Midlands and Hampshire, having started in Avon and Somerset in 1978. He is national lead on finance and vice crime and led Gloucestershire's response to the floods of 2007.