Investigating the role of ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ in failures to address longstanding problems harming the trustworthiness of UK policing

Bowles, Ben and Fenton-O'Creevy, Mark (2023). Investigating the role of ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ in failures to address longstanding problems harming the trustworthiness of UK policing. In: European Group for Public Administration Conference “Steering European Union Through Poly-Crises Storms: The Role of Public Administration", 5-8 Sep 2023, University of Zagreb, Zagreb, Croatia.


In the context of current challenges to the legitimacy of policing, is seems appropriate to address not just the challenge of improving public trust but the more fundamental question of how to build the ‘trustworthiness’ of policing organisations. This requires the uncomfortable work of examining the organisational conditions that have allowed the trustworthiness of some elements of policing fail. A key process in this uncomfortable work is to look closely at how institutions come to ‘know’ about issues and failures, and yet come to not act on that knowledge in order to prevent the same failures replicating into the future.
A tool for understanding ignorance in organisations is the theory of ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ as developed by Steve Raynor. Raynor calls on us to look at those things that institutions ‘know’ to be true, but where that knowledge has either not been smoothly assimilated throughout an organisation, or where it is ignored in daily practical action (where it is known intellectually, but not in practice). This research draws together findings from a currently ongoing piece of research that explores the value of the concept of ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ in UK policing. We will explore where sites of avoidance of uncomfortable knowledge may be present in UK police forces, such as, for example: where forces engage in trade-offs between urgent operational requirements and longer term operational strategies and priorities; where forces place their middle leaders in a double-bind of contradictory pressures, making them the interface between day-to-day operational priorities and processes from above that are meant to drive change; where forces operate a punitive error culture that depresses mechanisms of change; and where forces engage in displacement activities (what the Casey report (Casey et al., 2023) identifies as “initiativeitis”) at the expense of activities that could fundamentally challenge police culture. Our research will also examine ways in which techniques from the so-called ‘pedagogies of discomfort’ (Boler and Zembylas, 2003; Head, 2020) could be used to help police practitioners to break down barriers between their organisations and the ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ contained therein.

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