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10 Tips for Being the BEST Police IT Manager
Written by Brad Brewer
The position of IT Manager, let alone Police IT Manager, is often a difficult one even at the best of times. Police IT Managers not only have to deal with the politics of the civilian business world but multiply that 10 times when you add in the politics of sworn officers and managers from the old school who expect things done because "I said so." A civilian Police IT manager is in an even tougher spot having to say no to a Chief or Police Executive regardless of how strong their argument is. Saying "No!" to Police officers doesn’t usually work that well and is not an answer unto itself.
The Manager must provide a reason that can be explained easily and understood by those who may be of higher rank but lower in the technology learning curve. It’s called say no with a "Smart Yes." A non-Police IT Manager can easily get caught up in day-to-day operations and activities and lose sight of important management behaviors. Whether you’re a new or seasoned manager, the following suggestions can help you be a great IT Manager.
#1: Develop your people
Technology is advancing at a pace beyond anything we have seen before. Police IT Managers must be on top of these changes by ensuring staff are well trained in order to be well positioned for the future. Most IT workers love to learn about new and innovative technologies. For many, learning is not only enjoyable, but is necessary to do the best job possible.
It is not uncommon for a ‘techie’ in the policing IT field to have a keen interest in what the police do and see their contribution as something that assists the sworn officers in their efforts to make their community safer. It is exactly this type of dedication that the Police IT Manager needs to be aware of and nurture. Managers should ask themselves the question "How do I make sure my people understand the environment they are working in?"
Police departments have specific and often intensive procedures for doing some things that don’t always make sense, nor do they typically have the necessary budget for training and development. Suggestions for alternative ways to address these issues is to explore free regional presentations and workshops, set up in-house training, and get creative with your development dollars. Don’t forget about cross-training exercises as well. Even in a large IT group, there are jobs that only one person does routinely. Make sure others know what to do if that person is suddenly gone for an extended period.
This situation is especially true in the front-line police mobile computing world. Front line officers need immediate troubleshooting of issues that affect their day-to-day critical systems. Police IT managers need to create that special relationship bond between the IT technical staff and the front line officers. This works both ways, as the officers will feel involved in the technical decision making process and the technical staff feel a much greater sense of accomplishment and purpose knowing they have helped make the officers safer through the use of technology. Paramount to this relationship is the unique ability for front line police officers to take technical staff out on ride-alongs. This allows the IT person to see the "real world" of police technology in use and often broadens the minds of these people who most often work in a very clinical setting. Seeing technology used at 0300hrs, in a moving vehicle, in a low light conditions, with numerous other stimulus around often produces a much different response and appreciation.
#2: Understanding Police IT Job Functions
Obviously micromanagement is not advisable and a good Police IT manager does not need to master every task, but it's key to at least have a basic understanding as to what the staff’s normal work routine is. Familiarization with each person’s responsibilities is a way to better understand their needs and request when they ask for things. It allows the Manager to make better overall decisions and prioritize what’s important and what’s not. Essentially it’s a "ride-along" with each of the team members getting them to explain and demonstrate important tasks.
This also goes a long way with employee/ manager relations. The manager who takes the time to understand is the manager who truly cares about his or her employees and this shows great leadership. Good leadership in turn garners respect and loyalty. Building this rapport also reduces the opportunity for unhappy employees to create a poisoned work environment. People are much more likely to take direction or hear "no" from someone who they know truly understands their job function. Understanding each of the employees' job functions can identify inefficiencies that once corrected can lead to greater productivity and much more efficient operation.
Think about this scenario, you have an existing employee who is one of your top producers and always works on your critical systems and projects. Say that employee suffers simultaneous tragedies, a family member passes and/or the employee gets sick as a result of all the added stress. With no direct backup, who steps in to fulfill that job? How do you as the IT Manager make the decision as to who is best suited to step up if you don’t have someone cross trained or you don’t have any idea as to the job requirements?
Cross training is key to each job position in the IT world and usually each member of your team knows exactly who is best suited to be the person who should be cross trained as part of their job knowledge. Again, let them decide who fills this knowledge gap, don’t tell them unless it's unclear to them. Could you jump in and accomplish the job with the knowledge you had learned because you took an interest in understanding everyone’s job? As a result, you would have gained a great deal of respect from the employee, who may have previously suffered negative experiences with management. Understanding what your staff does not only increases their level of respect for you, but it also makes you more credible as a manager when faced with difficult situations or decisions.
#3: Micro-management kills productivity
In point number two it is suggested a good Police IT Manager would be proficient in knowing what each of his or her employees does on a day-to-day basis. That is in no way a suggestion to use that knowledge in an effort to be constantly looking over employees' shoulders, micromanaging their every move because you think you can do the job better than they can. If you got promoted from a “front-line” IT worker to a management role, resist the temptation to take over and make wholesale changes too quickly. Your knowledge and skill level may exceed your employees’, but you must assist your staff to learn and grow on their own. This is where promoting your people and getting them into developmental courses proves invaluable. There is a fine line between coaching and micro-managing. A good Police IT manager knows the difference and knows to trust their people.
While there may be an initial training period where you are more involved in doing the day-to-day work, use delegation and training strategies to move the work into your staff’s capable hands. Shared decision making works best and empowers your people to be better workers and better people all around.
Micromanagement is involving yourself too directly in what your staff should be doing instead. By definition, a manager is tasked with managing. That involves coordinating projects, solving problems, dealing with other managers, and developing relationships. The manager has to ensure that a certain quantity of work gets done, and normally that work is much more than one person could ever do alone. Therefore, the manager supervises a team of people to help them carry out that work. However, if a manager’s time is consumed with micromanaging, there's no time for all the other managerial tasks.
There’s more than one right way. As a supervisor, you need to prepare your employees to complete projects successfully, and to be clear from the beginning about the results you expect from them. Then you should stand back and let them carry out their designated tasks in the way they see fit, coming up with their own solutions. Remember that employees need to do things in a positive way, but not necessarily in the same way you would do them. This does not mean that communication is closed down — you still need to touch base from time to time. See how projects are progressing, and to check if the person has any questions. But he or she needs freedom to work within an open framework, to learn and grow. The end result is a strengthening of your firm. There’s no way your staff can develop and the firm can flourish if you are always there to meddle in the project and demonstrate the “correct” way to accomplish a task.
Your employees have to believe that you trust them to do a good job. But how can they do that if you’re always hovering over their shoulders, diving in to rescue them from themselves? If it’s inevitable that your staff’s decisions will be second-guessed, they will begin to feel frustrated and powerless. In addition, your employees will learn that they will not be held accountable, and will soon stop trying to make any decisions at all. That’s not to say that if you have an employee who is indeed constantly doing things incorrectly, it may be time to re-evaluate and get someone who can do the job properly. But first, see to it that staff are properly trained and know everything they need to know to do their jobs well. Be certain you're communicating the duties of the job clearly.
The bottom line is a good Police IT manager is one who prepares, and then trusts employees, remembers that he or she is part of a team, and leads by example, not by doing everyone else’s work. Your staff will appreciate your efforts, and will feel a greater sense of personal accomplishment. And in the end, your department will be leaders in the police IT community.
#4: Consider the "No Factor" and learn to say No with a "Smart Yes"
Police IT managers must understand the business they support and use that understanding to build services and infrastructure that support the police departments strategic goals and objectives. But make no mistake, policing, and public safety in general, is different, really different. No one wants to be the person who said no to a specific piece of hardware that may have been critical in a particular situation. So there’s a better way to deal with these issues. It's called saying no with a smart yes; "Yes of course we can do this project, but before we start I just want to make sure your aware that these four things are going to happen as a direct consequence of us doing what you ask" This then results in one of two things happening, first the requesting officer goes away and realizes the project has too many consequences to be successful or they actually deal with the consequences before they occur so the IT Manager doesn’t have to. Allowing those people to answer their own request with a no is politically the best way to get your point across without offending the wrong person.
That said, be careful to analyze requests and suggestions for the good ones and encompass those officers who bring those good ideas forward. Give credit where credit is due and always promote great people and their ideas. Promoting is also big and something that IT. Managers never really had to think about this before but now with budgeting concerns and external factors pressuring politicians to look for Departments to shrink. IT needs to showcase its importance in the policing environment. Show your direct reports and how their work affects overall policing strategic goals and ensure that business administrators understand what IT does for them. Showcase your police IT department’s activities through annual reports, regular communications, and frequent project updates especially to the senior police executive, who will inevitably be your project champions.
#5: Communicate, network, and learn from others; don’t re-invent the wheel
Information is not a limited commodity to hold internally for only a select few to access. A good Police IT Managers work environment should create the atmosphere whereby informat'ion can flow freely and easily between management and technicians. If there are significant gaps in information flow and you feel that you are not getting important information, consider ways to increase communication. Likewise, don’t hoard information, unless it is confidential. What seems irrelevant to you may be highly relevant for someone else. Reward information sharing between staff and promote the environment that makes this happen. This is not only true in your own department but look outside to areas that you might not have thought about before.
Record checks of Police databases often guides police tactics so information needs to be in a format officers can access in a hurry. This is where IT staff needs to participate in ride-alongs with front line officers or work study programs so they get a true sense of how these crucial systems are really used. Not only do IT staff need to study how their own police department does things, but cross training and sharing information with other police department IT sections is invaluable when looking to create efficiencies. Create user groups between the various IT managers across a geographical area. This sharing usually leads to the creation of commonalities between agencies that often work to each other advantage when writing business cases or bid specs to request project funding.
Some of the greatest information sharing between IT professionals happens at conferences like APCO (www.apcointl.org/), IACP LEIM (www.iacptechnology.org/LEIMSection.html), IWCE (IWCEexpo.com) Also keep this in mind, as the IT Manager your responsible for demonstrating the pillar of integrity and as such if you asked by an outside agency about a particular project, vendor or software system that was good, then tell them that. Be upfront and tell them if it doesn’t work and here is why. Conversely, site visits are always the best way to get the true and accurate picture as to how well a system is working when you’re the one evaluating. If your agency is looking at a particular vendor and you want to see how their product is working then go to that site with your project team and people who are going to actually use that system or program.
Having your project team do a site visit and all sit through a single presentation by the IT staff on how good the system is doesn't work. Break it out; cops go ride with cops and talk about what’s good and bad on the front end. Records clerks go sit with records clerks and talk about what works and what doesn't work on their end. IT people go talk with IT people and discuss what works and what doesn't work from the very technical perspective only an IT person understands. It’s only in these informal sessions that you can really truly get a sense for how a system or software package is working.
#6: Be a part of the team, not a separate entity
The phrase "The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts" well is true and especially in Policing. Encouraging collaboration and teamwork helps remove silo-like isolation that often occurs in police organizations. Cross-functional teams are extremely important because small changes in one area can have significant ripple impact across other units. Take Human Resources (HR) as an example, every Police Department has one or uses the local government HR offices. HR information is something that everyone in the Police Department needs access to and developing a partnership between HR and IT in order to get the most current HR information to the officers who work rotating shifts who can't get to an office that only operates during business hours.
Making medical, dental, payroll and other administrative documents available 24X7 on the department’s Intranet makes a big difference to the front line staff that because of shifting cant always be there on dayshift. Making things accessible for shift workers improves morale and makes the staff on rotating shifts feel like they have a voice. Again, bring in users from different areas and get them contributing to the team. Ideally, you want some heads-up front line users who are technically savvy to work with your IT people and create that bond that allows for a much more productive environment.
Reward efforts that allow for collaboration and develop an environment where workers can feel comfortable asking for and giving assistance to one another. Frustrations often result when one team member knows something that others spend hours working to resolve. Transparency of the projects is also a way of showing that IT isn't a separate entity all to itself. This can be done by posting all your IT projects on the department's internal Intranet and making available all post project reviews for anyone to read.
#7: Provide feedback regularly and let employees know what you want
Feedback is an essential part of keeping a company or organization running efficiently, as it is one of the ways management and its employees communicate. Yet, the term feedback often has a negative connotation, most often mistakenly because employees need and usually want effective feedback. It is important as it lets them know whether or not they are succeeding. Demonstrating innovative leadership will require a strong Police IT Manager to partner with their employees in order to assist with their development.
Leadership should be giving their employees the resources, access to information and job opportunities to help each staff member develop. “Constructive criticism” is a term that is supposed to be synonymous with feedback but tends to be a term employees hate to hear. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Many forms of feedback exist, and all effective feedback needs to be specific and timely. Praise should be in public, and a reprimand should be in private.
Constructive is the word that should always be connected with criticism. Before you discuss an employee's shortcomings, decide exactly what they are, get straight to the point, and do it in such a way that there is a positive conclusion. One thing that always plagues managers is giving the year-end merit review without having given the employee feedback at regular intervals during the year. The most common excuse is that there doesn't seem to be enough time to fit it in, but making the time not only benefits the employees, but the Manager as well.
#8: Pick the right people
In a Police Department it goes without saying that staff selection is extremely important but that's also true in any IT shop. Given the added security requirements, background checks, and integrity challenges facing new hires, it's a pretty slim field of possible candidates. If you have never hired in a Police civilian capacity before, ask for assistance, tap into others expertise, and do your homework. Hiring poorly can be more costly than not hiring at all. Police officials are all too well aware that their Federal and State/Provincial data-banks are vulnerable to attack and no where more vulnerable than from the inside.
Key to all good Police IT Managers is the need for a mix of technical and soft skills when hiring IT staff. Technical skills are only a small piece of the puzzle, and sometimes focusing on satisfying the technical skills requirement above all else can result in a very disappointing end. You should know if a person will integrate well with the team you have already built.
It may also help to get your team involved in the hiring process, when it’s appropriate and allowed. Your staff can help you determine whether the applicant relates well to others and has the appropriate soft skills. Just because someone possess great technical skills doesn't mean they play well with others, so how do you make sure a new employee has the right soft skill set to complement the team? Consider a peer group interview somewhere in the hiring process, staff is more likely to accept and work along side someone they had input into hiring as opposed to someone they didn't. Communication skills that fit in with the mindset of other team members is the criteria that many believe is key. They must fit well into the team to ensure the team as a whole can perform to level you expect.
#9: Use best IT practice, don’t just talk about them
In policing the term "Best Practices" is often thrown around but often reality doesn't truly reflect that sentiment all the time. Every department has some examples at the Police station with posters on the wall saying one thing when the realities of the day-to-day operation demonstrate another. Learn and understand the best practices that apply to your policing environment and measure yourself and your department against them. Let the entire department see the end results and post the project reviews for all to see in an effort to be transparent completely. Allow a front-line shift working officer the ability to see what IT is working on at anytime of the day or night. Make it extremely easy for officers to put forward ideas and make suggestions that may improve the department’s efficiencies. Who better to get feedback from than those using the systems 24X7?
Explore not only what other policing practices are but look around at other industries and see what other best practices are and how they might benefit your agency. Then look inward and determine whether you should implement at least portions of it in your department. Ensure your disaster recovery plan is up-to-date and ready for action. Perform regular security assessments. Proceed with caution, however; throwing around buzzwords won’t gain you any clout. You must truly understand the ideas and their application to your environment. Then, plan and implement appropriate related changes. There are a few key organizations or conferences that many in the Policing IT world look to in an effort to set some standards and best practices. APCO, IACP LEIM, IWCE are once again great resources.
#10: Be a good project manager
In Law Enforcement IT Projects, it's usually the formal management of the project where the problems present themselves. Project Management is an art unto itself and formal training is a must for any successful police IT project. Did your Police department’s last IT project suffer scope creep? Whose job was it to maintain project focus and keep everyone on track? Most projects, particularly IT ones, don’t fail because the project itself was bad. Most failures are a result of weak project management. If you haven’t had any formal project management training, find and invest in a good program.
Read and utilize resources and use the formal templates that allow for proper project management fundamentals. This is not only the case for the IT staff but in particular the sworn officers who are usually included in the projects. Any policing IT project should have sworn officers on the team to ensure those front line issues are being addressed all the way through the project. Typically we spend the time and money to develop our civilian IT staff with project management training, but it's not that often we send sworn officers for project management training BEFORE they start a project. Having everyone on the same page and knowing what the project structure, parameters, and scope is from start usually produces a greater likely hood of success.
As a Manager, you need to prepare your employees to complete projects successfully, and to be clear from the beginning about the results you expect from them. Then you should stand back and let them carry out their designated tasks in the way they see fit, coming up with their own solutions. Remember that employees need to do things in a positive way, but not necessarily in the same way you would do them. This does not mean that communication is closed down as you still need to touch base from time to time, to see how projects are progressing, and to check if the person has any questions. But they need the freedom to work within an open framework, to learn and grow. There’s no way your staff can develop and the department can flourish if you are always there to meddle in the project and demonstrate your “correct” way to accomplish a task.
Having a project team with everyone on a different page as to exactly what the project plan is won't work and usually collapses the project quickly. Everyone should be on the same page and up on essential elements, task responsibility, deadlines, and most importantly project scope. If the sworn officers in your project don't have the training then get it for them. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that simply by having regular meetings, you are managing the project. Live by the rule of "under promise and over deliver," not the other way around.
Sergeant Brad Brewer is a 22-year member of the Vancouver Police Department. He sits on the Ford Police Advisory Board and regularly gives presentations at law enforcement conferences on mobile computing, wireless technology and police vehicle ergonomics. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2012
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