Evaluation of police and fire reform year 4: international perspectives

Evaluation of police and fire reform year 4: international perspectives on police and fire reform.

Executive summary

The evaluation of police and fire reform in Scotland began in February 2015 and has been undertaken by the Scottish Institute for Policing Research (SIPR), ScotCen Social Research and What Works Scotland. 

This year’s (Year 4) report concludes the four year evaluation and focuses on the international experiences of reform in police and fire services, building on the sharing of information with international partners which has been a major and ongoing part of the evaluation and which has positioned Scotland at the hub of an international knowledge exchange network. While previous reports have focused on the Scottish experience of reform, by adopting an international perspective in this report, it is possible to see what learning might be gleaned for Scotland from the experiences of other places. 

The report focuses on the themes of:

  • strengthening connections to local communities
  • partnership working
  • prevention
  • and for the fire services, reconfiguring the role of fire services in an era of changing demands. 

For police, four international locations were chosen: the Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand and Manchester, England. These were chosen as they had all experienced reform of their service, and Norway and New Zealand also have a similar geography to Scotland. 

For fire, the four locations were: the Netherlands, New Zealand, West Midlands England and Alberta, Canada. The Netherlands and New Zealand were chosen because they have both experienced reform. West Midlands and Alberta were chosen due to their similarities in geography to Scotland and their interesting examples of prevention. 

Twenty-nine qualitative telephone interviews were conducted with senior officers in the police and fire services, government officials and academics in the case study areas between June and September 2018. It should be noted that this is a relatively small number of interviews and the aim is to reflect a range of different views and experiences of reform across the different case study areas.

International experience of reform in policing

Policing local communities

  • Reform has impacted on the policing of communities in different ways in the different case study locations. 
  • Evidence from Manchester and New Zealand suggests that reform has improved the relationship between the police and local community with a greater focus on community-centred policing, which was a specific aim of reform in New Zealand. 
  • In contrast in the Netherlands and Norway, an identified challenge of reform was maintaining relationships with the community during centralisation of the service, for example, officers being pulled away from the communities they serve to address national issues. In Norway, officers were expected to spend more time out of the office and in the community to try to maintain a close relationship with the communities they served. 
  • Different approaches were used in the case study areas to engage positively and build trust with local communities including regular community meetings, recruiting a more diverse workforce to the police, training on how to engage with communities and clearer lines of communication.

Partnership working

  • In all of the international case study locations, the research findings illustrated the wide range of partners the police are working with in a post reform context, including health services, emergency services, local authority departments and third sector organisations. Typically such partnership working predates reform but often gains a renewed emphasis following organisational change as police and fire services look to develop new ways of delivering services.
  • Factors identified for successful partnerships included regular face-to-face contact, having a shared focus and the need for a change in culture in both the police and partners to work in a more integrated way. 
  • Budget constraints were identified as a challenge to partnership working but also an opportunity by encouraging greater sharing of resources, including information.


  • There were differing views about the impact of reform on the prevention agenda in the international case studies. 
  • In Norway and New Zealand prevention has been a specific aim of reform. 
  • New Zealand has seen a significant shift to prevention through the development of a new operating model, ‘Prevention First’ which has been integrated into their strategy and is part of a broader police reform agenda.
  • In contrast, interviewees from Manchester and the Netherlands did not view reform as having impacted on prevention. Instead, interviewees from Manchester indicated that a move towards more evidence-based practice has had more of an impact on prevention than reform. 

International experience of reform in fire services 

Widening role of firefighters and relationship with local community

  • Due to a reduction in fires, in all four international case study areas the role of the firefighter had widened to include new roles, such as, prevention, additional response due to severe weather and terrorism, more specialisation, and becoming medical first responders. 
  • The fire services felt they had good relationships with the local community because of their community service role and being based and living in the communities they serve. 
  • Factors identified for building good community relations included having community-focused leadership and embedding community work in the role of the firefighter. 
  • Fire services are preparing for these widening roles by providing new forms of training for existing firefighters, for example, communication and leadership skills and for ensuring that the full range of activities that firefighters are now expected to undertake are included in recruitment materials. 

Partnership working

  • Partnership working was viewed as becoming more common in recent years across all the case study areas. 
  • Each area worked with a wide range of partners to deliver services to the community. 
  • Common challenges identified included funding cuts and the impact of the widening role of the firefighter on working in partnership with other organisations. 
  • Funding cuts were also seen as an opportunity as they served as a driver to organisations to look to engage in more partnership working initiatives.


  • Prevention is viewed as an important part of the firefighter role, with fire safety being the key prevention activity across the case study areas. 
  • Alberta, Canada and West Midlands in England have also expanded their role to non-fire prevention including initiatives to prevent drink driving and safe and well checks, which are designed to identify vulnerability so that appropriate referrals to other services can be made. 
  • Common challenges identified included evaluating the effectiveness of prevention initiatives and ensuring firefighters have the required skills to take on prevention roles.
  • However, with a new generation of recruits to the fire service, the view is that they are being brought into the service and made aware that there is a different expectation around the role of the firefighter which is more closely aligned to the prevention agenda.

Learning from international perspectives 

For both police and fire services, key learning from the international case studies illustrates the importance of having open and honest communication and clear aims of reform, as well as keeping focused on what reform is trying to achieve for the service. 

For police, key learning across the four case study areas includes: 

  • the need for culture change when undertaking reform which aligns with the priorities and approaches of the new organisation
  • being clear about the priorities and sequence of reform and not attempting to change everything at the same time
  • providing strong and stable leadership throughout periods of organisational change
  • supporting the workforce through change, such as the development needs of the workforce, providing appropriate IT and information sharing platforms
  • the importance of working in partnership with other services, stakeholders and local communities; and lastly 
  • being patient as delivering and achieving change takes time. 

For the fire services, specific learning from these international perspectives includes:

  • thinking beyond firefighting to prevention and safety to remain relevant, and 
  • drawing on existing knowledge and experience within the organisation when experiencing organisational change.

Conclusions and wider lessons

Despite differences of context, the police and fire and rescue services featured in the international case studies in this report have encountered similar experiences and challenges associated with reform. 

Scotland’s reform of its police and fire and rescue services has also followed a very similar path to the international experience considered in this research, and encountered many of the same experiences and challenges. Scotland is not unique in trying to establish an effective working relationship between centralised functions and local delivery; Scotland is similar to other places in trying to develop effective partnership working between service providers; and Scotland, like other places, also faces challenges of finding robust ways of measuring the impact and outcomes of preventative and partnership activity across different services. 

For all the case studies explored in this research, the process of planned ‘organisational change’ has involved a complex interplay between both planned, top-down approaches to change and more emergent approaches involving continuous adaptation to changing circumstances and conditions. 

Wider lessons for future organisational change in police and fire services, and other public services emerging from this international phase of the evaluation include: 

  • Managing expectations of how long organisational reform takes by recognising that it is a journey rather than a one-off event.
  • Taking time to prioritise and maintain external relationships with partners which can be affected by organisational change as the focus is often on internal relationships. It is also important to raise awareness with partners of the changes being planned and delivered, in particular other public services, to enable partners to adapt and respond to such organisational change. 
  • Risk mitigation and ongoing risk management - there are a range of strategic risks associated with reform which need to be carefully managed, which include internal and external communication, performance, skills and leadership. Routine reviews of these areas of activity are therefore needed. 
  • The opportunity for services to develop as learning organisations – while periods of structural reform present significant challenges, reform provides the opportunity for police and fire services, and potentially other public services undertaking organisational change, to develop as learning organisations, skilled in creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge, and modifying their culture and behaviour to reflect new knowledge, insights and a changing context. International comparative analysis is particularly important in this regard as it often challenges taken-for-granted assumptions about how services operate as well as offering opportunities for information sharing and collaboration.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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