AFP ‘trying to correct 200-plus years of systemic bias’ against women


Andrew Colvin.

The Australian Federal Police is at the start of a long road to transform its deeply entrenched organisational culture that will take “years, if not decades” according to the commissioner, but he will defend it as a “great organisation” to the end.

It was standing room only at the National Portrait Gallery yesterday for Andrew Colvin’s speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s ACT chapter, and those looking for a rock-solid commitment to gender equity got what they came for.

The catalyst for change was a report from sex discrimination commissioner turned consultant Elizabeth Broderick last year that revealed hard truths about the experiences of some women in the AFP.

“We’d allowed bad behaviours to become normalised, and not to be questioned.”

Colvin said some of the commentary surrounding the report was unfair — like the idea that he’s been “captured” by feminist extremists — but on the other hand, he is happy to have been compared with senior military officers standing up for women in the armed forces.

Part of the AFP’s role is offering “leadership on issues of national importance” like gender so Colvin said the transformational reforms were not about “fixing” the force: “We’re not broken. It’s about making us the very best organisation that we can be.”

From this perspective, the release of Broderick’s report was a “very good day for the AFP” when its leaders “decided not to take the easy path anymore, but to show genuine leadership as an organisation and as individuals” and strive for continuous improvement. The changes are also tied in with the AFP’s broader forward planning projects and the response to a recent Functional and Efficiency Review.

“Work continues towards a foundational capability plan and towards a technology roadmap, towards a future-orientated education strategy and a workforce plan, all based on the work we’ve done to review, reform and reshape ourselves,” Colvin said.

He admits “it all sounds like a lot of reviews” but believes the AFP is well positioned to improve in coming years.

“When you strip away the horrible headlines — the really, rightfully, disappointing figures that came out of the work that Elizabeth and her team did — and you look beyond that, and you delve into those underlying causes of why our culture isn’t what it should be, at its core I believe they’re signs that people are under pressure, that people are stressed, and that people are tired,” the commissioner said. “And to be honest, this is what the FER has told us also.”

Colvin argued the AFP’s internal culture was not “terrible” and said staff were highly engaged, motivated and passionate. The attrition rate is so low, the commissioner is actually hoping more of his officers think about trying career moves outside the police in years to come, to avoid excessive workforce ageing, but also because he sees unhealthy aspects of the in-for-life mentality that often pervades law enforcement.

“They’re signs that people are under pressure, that people are stressed, and that people are tired.”

“In 2016 we were again voted the top public sector employer and ninth overall out of all the employers in Australia for LGBTI inclusion, so we’re clearly getting some things right,” said Colvin, putting the problems identified by Broderick down to complacency that had set in over time.

“We’d allowed bad behaviours to become normalised, and not to be questioned,” he said, suggesting that was common to other public sector organisations.

“I think the challenge that I’d like to put out to all government sector leaders is to ask honest questions of your own organisations and make sure that we’re not just normalising behaviour that we shouldn’t be accepting. We can’t pretend that these aren’t issues more broadly across society, and therefore across organisations.”

Safe Space building understanding

Andrew Colvin. Images: RLDI

Colvin only touched on the sexual harassment, sexual assault and serious bullying that “created some terrible headlines” once in the speech, preferring the catch-all term “bad behaviour” and focusing on the report’s broader organisational implications. He said it mainly revealed “bad practice, sloppy process, biased systems and bad behaviour” had become accepted as normal.

“The report told us that the lived experience of too many of our members was that they were victimised time and time again, by the processes that we were asking them to step through in order to have their cases heard,” said the commissioner.

The new Safe Space established in response to the findings offered “holistic support” for victims of these internal crimes, he said, modelled on ideas that had worked elsewhere and the way the AFP had treated victims of external crimes for a long time. In the five months since, it’s received 167 referrals, 40 of which have been resolved to the complainant’s satisfaction, and over 120 calls for advice.

“Essentially this report was about how we treat each other, … the respect that we have for ourselves and the respect that we have and should have for each other,” Colvin said. “Left unaddressed, these normalised behaviours would eventually be the undoing of what is otherwise a fantastic and outstanding organisation.”

“Nothing will change in the AFP because I said so.”

The Safe Space also arranges “storytelling sessions” where officers can share stories and the impact of the “bad behaviour” they have experienced. Colvin said he was pleased to say the AFP had “vastly improved” in terms of responsiveness to internal complaints of this kind, but knows the reforms are sunk if they are seen as a simple project led by one deputy commissioner and not supported by at least several thousand staff.

“Nothing will change in the AFP because I said so. I can change a guideline or a procedure, or sign off on something, but the truth is unless it makes sense to the person in Sydney or the person in the Solomon Islands or wherever it might be, unless it makes sense to them and their team leader wants them to do it and their superintendent wants them to do it, it’s not going to happen.”

The commissioner believes his cultural change program will also fail if the AFP falls back on the structure and discipline that rules its day-to-day work. “What we have to do is focus on the role of integrity, the role of identity, and the role of organisational health if we want to build and change culture.”

“What’s not fair about trying to correct 200-plus years of systemic bias that’s been built into our systems that have created a patently un-level playing field?”

Regardless of the Broderick report, diversity makes sense for a variety of reasons. Take your pick from financial performance, organisational capability, talent management and leadership performance or just follow your moral compass; it should lead you to the same answer, said Colvin.

“If I cannot achieve greater parity in the AFP for a group that represents over 50% of the people in the community, how can I possibly hope to build a culture that encourages diversity of thought, diversity of language, diversity of education, diversity of skill, diversity of culture? And the list of course can go on.”

What Broderick’s review revealed was not unknown to the AFP top brass, but Colvin said the report helped build “unity of purpose” and “galvanised the organisation into action” to stamp out nepotism and other kinds of organisational malaise.

The commissioner has seen previous efforts to improve gender equity in the AFP fall by the wayside despite the best intentions of their proponents.

“So we are forcing that change,” he told the IPAA audience. “We’ve introduced, or we are introducing, gender targets and gender-based policies across all of the AFP’s business. And our recruitment, our course opportunities, our promotion opportunities, everything that we can do. We want balance in our teams and investigations; we need to get proper balance across all of the AFP.”

The popular gender reform measure of making all roles flexible sounds great, but is often much more difficult for managers and team leaders to implement than it is for senior leaders to announce, in any organisation. Colvin admitted the idea seems just plain “odd” in the policing world, but believes it will work mainly through one simple rule:

“If someone puts in an application for a position to be carried out flexibly or part-time and the answer is no, then it’s going to be sent straight to higher up.”

Traditional merit principle fails to deliver diversity

Gender parity targets are “controversial” in the AFP, even among a significant number of women, and Colvin gets why they are uncomfortable with the idea of being assisted by affirmative action policies that seem to detract from their own merits.

“In the AFP — and, I suspect, in many organisations — merit has just effectively sustained the status quo.”

“But let me say this: it is fair,” he said. “What’s not fair about trying to correct 200-plus years of systemic bias that’s been built into our systems that have created a patently un-level playing field?”

“Let everyone get to the start-line at the same time in the same place with the same opportunity, then just let competition thrive. We all joke that women need to be twice as good, to prove themselves twice as much. But the truth is it’s not a joke; it’s actually reality in so many ways and we should be ashamed of that.”

Colvin said the merit principle in its traditional form had clearly failed and resulted in a lack of diversity, due to conscious and unconscious bias.

“Regardless of whether they followed the same path that you did, or that they did the same things in the job that you did, or they have been through the same furnace that you did, it’s got nothing to do with that.

“That’s not merit; that’s replication. And in the AFP — and, I suspect, in many organisations — merit has just effectively sustained the status quo.”

The commissioner asks cops who oppose the reform to consider the fact they might actually be prejudiced against women, and advises against trying to wait him out.

“This change will continue and we will see it through,” Colvin said resolutely. “I make no apologies for the fact that it will upset some people. Real change hurts. Real change is not easy and there will be people who will be detractors.”

But, after 27 years on the force, he admits he isn’t so different from those detractors himself.

“I’m as much a part of the culture that we are leaving behind and that we want to jettison as I am a part of the culture that I want us to get to. And that’s difficult for us to accept.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article misquoted the AFP commissioner, in both the headline and the body. The reporter misheard the phrase “systemic bias” which has now replaced the incorrect quotes.

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