Guest Post: Operation Talla – Leadership in a Pandemic

Sarah Johnson is the Superintendent for Operation Talla, Northamptonshire Police

“I am the force lead for Northamptonshire Police’s for Operation Talla, this is the Police response to the Coronovirus pandemic. My ‘normal’ day job is as the Head of Operations, armed policing, dogs, public order, and other specialist disciplines and associated command roles.

In the initial phases of responding to this pandemic we were faced with many challenges, the virus has no consideration for how essential our roles are and we face that double threat of having to both protect the public and our staff from risk while maintaining our usual policing with an entirely new way of working.

There isn’t a book for how we respond to pandemic. We have lots of structures and plans which are linked but this attack on every aspect of the way in which we deploy from both outside and within doesn’t align to anything we have ever faced. Our command structures can be roughly summarised as Gold, Silver and Bronze. Gold is a Chief Officer and has oversight of the strategy and the highest level of decision making is held here. I am the Silver, it’s my role to turn the broad strategy into activity and maintain oversight of that, raising issues where appropriate. The Bronzes are thematic or subject matter experts, each holding specific strands and reporting into me with progress.

In some events a command structure might be quite small with just a handful of people at Silver but, in the case of Operation Talla, this structure expands across the entire organisation. As Silver, much of the delivery of the required change rests with you so it’s not an inconsiderable decision for the Force to choose who is best placed to lead in a crisis.

I’m not the only choice to lead this piece of work for the force, there are a range of very qualified Superintendents and Chief Superintendents who have the command skills to undertake this role. It would be hard for anyone to suggest that they had much experience of a pandemic but certainly there are a group of us who are experienced in managing contingencies, change and crisis management.

When the first reports of the potential pandemic arose they came to me in my usual day job as a result of them having possible links to use of specialist roles and contingency planning. I worked closely with a Chief Officer lead as those initial stages developed and through to the point where it became clear that the UK was not going to avoid infections.

The initial stages developed very quickly and I think it is honest to say that it was chaotic. Huge amounts of information poured into the service requiring change at just about every level of the organisation. It’s hard to articulate how quickly we had to change our practices and how suddenly some of those changes arrived. I pulled together plans and processes each day only to find they were out of date by the following morning, change heaped on change.

I haven’t ever worked on an incident or process that has contained such an overwhelming amount of information or such dynamic restructuring. It made it easy for people to view the process as uncoordinated and uncontrolled. Communication was challenging and the command structure was developing which resulted in information often arcing around the most effective lines.

Overall there was huge pressure for the Operation Talla team, as it was by then, and specifically me to deliver structure and change. Silver is the point where activity is delivered, it is also often the most visible point of success or failure of actions. In this phase of chaos it would be easiest for Gold or Chief Officers to perceive that disorder as a consequence of my activity rather than an understanding of the

overall picture, the classic ‘glass cliff’ scenario. There is no doubt that this would be an easy an effective way of proving to resolve concerns or frustrations would have been to substitute me. It’s a rank based organisation, we all have specific command roles and courses, and this could have been done without much difficulty on any of those rationales.

However, that isn’t how my Force have chosen to lead.

It’s been very difficult and, when chaos ruled my senior managers chose to support me, giving me the top cover and support I needed to build a structure. When questions arose about how activity was being delivered and why problems were arising they gave me the lead in presenting how I was addressing them when it would have been easy for a more senior manager to choose to translate my activity themselves.

I have been encouraged to find new ways to meet the challenges that have arisen, not held back by unnecessary process or hierarchy. Some days have been really difficult, the hours have been very long and it has sometimes felt like we will never see the end of the variations but, at the moments when I have felt bruised by it, I have been given kind and personal feedback and support by the most senior leaders in this organisation and my peers.

I have also been given the freedom to seek diversity, both in the way in which I work but also my team. I have a small team but made up from a group of individuals from a broad range of policing roles, it’s given us not just diversity in the traditional sense but also in thought and experience. The response to our sometimes alternative approach has also been viewed positively. The public support for this making a stronger case for the removal of barriers to diverse leadership than any other campaign I have ever seen.

I have had the public and visible support as the ‘expert’ for Operation Talla too. Not in the sense of benevolent sexism but in a way that is genuine and honest, equal footing in the media presentations on behalf of Northamptonshire Police and also in response to requests for more academic review processes.

The challenges on managing this crisis continue but I am happy to be able to say that they have brought out the best in my leadership team and their true feelings about senior women leaders. For Northamptonshire Police senior female leadership feels like business as usual and not an optional extra.”

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