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Improving Communication and Coordination through Compstat: An Opportunity for Learning and Enhanced Performance

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brenda Bond
December 4, 2017

Compstat has become one and the same with progressive police management and is believed to increase accountability among managers for the reduction of crime.

Compstat generally supports four principals:

1) available information across all levels of the agency;
2) identification of effective tactics for specific problems;
3) rapid, focused deployment to implement selected tactics; and,
4) follow-up and assessment to learn about what works.

Police agencies have widely adopted Compstat and Compstat-like forums and other public service agencies at municipal and state levels.

Compstat changes the way managers operate with the idea that Compstat participants consider their experience, best practices, and available research. Compstat can be viewed as a way “to stimulate a cross-fertilization of ideas and approaches to solving problems, using the “whole brain of the organization.” Indeed, “innovation takes place when different ideas, perceptions and ways of processing and judging information collide.” Despite the potential for this type of learning in Compstat, these dimensions have yet to be thoroughly leveraged.

Peter Drucker, a renowned management guru, suggested that a major factor in achieving desired outcomes is the responsibility individuals take in communicating information up, down and across the organization, which others say happens through collaboration.

For those of us who have participated in and studied Compstat, the idea that Compstat is a “discourse process” makes a lot of sense. Communication is not for communication’s sake alone, but to “develop common understanding, goals, norms, motivations, intentions and collective identities.” If we consider the four principles of Compstat, we can imagine that to successfully accomplish these tasks, people within the organization need to communicate and coordinate their activities. However, current research reveals Compstat remains narrowly situated within the higher ranks of the organization, perhaps to the detriment of performance.

Policymakers, practitioners and researchers need to look more closely at the communication and coordination dimensions surrounding Compstat to improve expected outcomes.

Those who study and practice Compstat suggest Compstat won’t work unless Compstat information is dispersed across the agency. Indeed, multiple studies reveal several contradictions to this point. We know commanders complete most Compstat work with support from staff and crime analysts, and that street officers have little idea of Compstat discussions. Organizational development research indicates manager’s may report that they frequently consult with their subordinates before reaching important decisions, but the subordinates’ own reports and other data sources on decision making may not confirm this idealized picture.”

Applying effective communication and coordination frameworks: There are useful frameworks from other disciplines that may enhance Compstat’s communication and coordination dimensions. Relational coordination is a framework tested in the airline and hospital industries – two similarly volatile and unpredictable environments to policing This framework suggest strong communication and coordination have a positive impact on desired outcomes (e.g. flight departures and surgical outcomes, respectively). According to this idea, three dimensions of relationships are integral to the process of coordination: shared knowledge, shared goals and mutual respect. The theory of RC promotes relationships between roles within a structure, rather than relationships driven by individuals or personalities.

As noted previously, police leaders view Compstat as a way for managers to share information for improved police practice on the street. In fact, prevention, intervention and enforcement strategies are employed using relationships between different roles (i.e. individuals or groups) within and outside the police organization. It is the transference of information from management to the street level officer that lies at the heart of Compstat. This requires communication and coordination across the department, a notion reinforced by Drucker who suggests dissemination happens through collaboration – the process of working in association with others for some mutual benefit.

Officers on the street must work fairly independently to prevent, intervene and respond to emerging safety concerns – a shared goal. Their work is generally informed by data from analysts, community insights, supervisor directives and officer observation and knowledge, to name a few. These combined elements support a collective understanding of the context, with a view to action. Police work can become volatile quickly, and the circumstances of any situation can turn threatening in a moment. For this reason, the underlying theory of relational coordination applies given that groups of individuals operate in a context of uncertainty to contribute to the understanding and management of crime in any given area.

Agencies that focus as much attention on the communication and coordination dimensions of Compstat, informed by frameworks that work in other industries, are headed towards a more ideal way of implementing Compstat, and thus, more positively influence organizational goals and outcomes.

Author: Brenda J. Bond, PhD is Associate Professor and Chair of the Institute for Public Service in Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School. Dr. Bond’s research centers on the introduction and implementation of organizational change and evidence-based practices in public safety institutions. Email: [email protected]

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