Police Promotion Processes: A Postcode Lottery (1)

“Tests ain’t fair. Those that prepare have an unfair advantage. It’s always been that way.” – Alan Pearce

When it comes to police promotion in the UK, there is not a single “best way” of promoting officers. If you look around forces at the moment, you’ll see a mix and match of processes, stages and approaches. All are in place to fundamentally select the best available candidates for promotion to the federated ranks of Sergeant, Inspector, and Chief Inspector, from the pool of qualified individuals.

It’s a brutal reality that for officers seeking promotion within their force, it really is ‘luck of the draw’ which method their force uses and whether they like it or not. Hold onto your hats, as we take a quick look over the landscape of potential promotion processes and methods across UK forces. You might think they would be similar. However, different forces have different promotion selection processes in place at different times for different ranks. To top it off, the process within a force is often changed each year!

With 50 or so different UK police forces, each with different objectives and constantly changing over time, there are almost infinite ways they can promote police officers! Many officers describe this as some sort of cruel game of ‘moving the goal posts’, while constantly treating aspiring officers as a cohort of willing guinea pigs to test out new methods. Maybe even a test of character and mental toughness for officers who have tried (and failed) before. That’s a good description of what’s occurring!

Here’s a recent video I compiled talking more on this subject of this ‘Postcode lottery’…

In this blog (Part 1), I cover the subject of fairness, common frustrations with changes and recognise what you’ve done to get to this point. In Part 2, I’ll cover more about the various routes to promotion and how you can best navigate your way to success.


Are UK Police Promotion Processes Fair?

Police promotion fairness

A year from now you may wish you had started today.” – Karen Lamb

Promotion in the Police Service is not fair. There, I said it. If you didn’t know that, or at least think or suspect it, you do now. You don’t have to agree. It’s just a starting point; an invite to check in to one reality. 

Surely there are policies and procedures to ensure that fairness is an integral part of promotion selection processes? Well, of course there are. Right now, as things stand today, there are probably more than you can shake a stick at. Sure, you have ‘objective scoring matrices’, ‘standardised’ behavioural frameworks, and ‘consistent’ processes. Yet the fact remains that (thankfully) humans assess your promotion endeavours and decide whether to progress you to the next rank. Ultimately these people all have their own foibles, motivations, perspectives, biases, and experiences. I cover more in the guides as to how to make their job of promoting you easier.

Yet most aspiring candidates are unsuccessful, at least on their first attempt. As with recruitment processes, there are lots of individuals who for various reasons don’t make it through the rigorous selection process. So, is any of this fair? Or a more important question:

Will whinging and complaining get you promoted?

Let’s explore the context of how you got to this point…


Lessons from Promotion Exam Qualifications

NPPF exam tension

A year from now you may wish you had started today.” – Karen Lamb

England & Wales police forces and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) use a legal exam to determine eligibility for those allowed to apply for promotion within the federated ranks. This is often described as the ‘NPPF Step 2 Legal Exam’, or formally known as ‘OSPRE Part 1’. Police Scotland do things slightly differently, instead stipulating that officers must have completed the ‘Diploma in Police Leadership and Management’.

It’s true to say that generations of promotion candidates have contributed to and influenced the current situation in relation to exams. I’ll swing the lamp for a moment and allude to 1991 when the promotion exam consisted of two elements: A multiple-choice question paper and a written comprehension paper (marks for showing your thoughts and workings out). I remember reading in the ‘Police Review’ magazine at the time some of the arguments for and against this method. Those opposed raised all-too-familiar criticisms, including:

“Is this really the best way to test officers?”

“Is it relevant to policing today?”

“Only those who are good at multiple choice or written comprehension tend to pass.”

In the evolution or iterations of exam process since then, criticisms have been almost identical. These have extended to the latter, competitive stages of promotion, e.g. “Role play is unrealistic.” Taking the positives, there’s some consistency now… for exams at least.   

You might be reading this as a qualified officer. After months of study and focus, sacrificing precious family time, fitting revision around your work commitments, passing that exam was an immense relief. A hard-won, well – earned result. One you can rightly be proud of. It also enables you under current guidelines upon being supported, to ‘go for promotion’, e.g. you are eligible and free to navigate the elements of a selection process in place at that time in your force. 

Other individuals with the same aspiration might not have dedicated and applied themselves as you did to pass the exam. They may understandably be disappointed, frustrated, angry or envious that you passed. Others will be pleased you hit the mark. 

Is this a fair way to treat people?  After all, no one stopped to ask you if you like exams, or whether you find them a difficult challenge. No one is really interested in your personal thoughts or beliefs about the relevance of exams. You can shout it from the rooftops that you don’t like certain assessments, challenges, selection tests or the like for what it’s worth. In due course over time, that approach may work and something else will replace it…  but not yet; it’s the current rite of passage and standard you have to navigate.


The Zeitgeist: UK Police Promotion Processes in 2020

Zeitgeist of UK police promotion

“Change is the only constant.” – Marcus Aurelius

Let’s switch focus to the next steps and the various force selection processes for promoting individuals through the federated, CVF Level 2 ranks of Sergeant, Inspector and Chief Inspector. Strangely enough, shouting loudly and objecting to certain elements used for selection has worked and led to changes! For example:

  • If you don’t personally like being required to have to submit a competency-based promotion application or expression of interest, then in some forces you now don’t have to. Let’s face it, there’s an air of brutality about application forms.
  • If you don’t like having to take part in a competency-based interview, no problem. In some forces you now don’t have to.
  • If you dislike any element of your force promotion selection process, especially if it requires you to step out of your comfort zone, you can be sure someone will kick up a stink about it!  

Over the years, those whinging and complaining (loudly and often) have been listened to. Here’s some of the feedback that has resulted in the implementation of a variety of new processes.

  • We don’t like promotion applications: We don’t think they are a fair or relevant test for promotion candidates. No one wants them. Only those who are competent at applications tend to get through. This aspect of the selection process discriminates against those who find it difficult. There are enough of us to warrant being listened to and we demand you change it. (Chief Constable response: “Ok then.”)
  • We don’t like promotion interviews: We don’t believe that boards are a fair or relevant test as part of any promotion selection process. No one wants them. Only those who are competent tend to get through. Interviews discriminate against those who find them difficult. There are enough of us to warrant being listened to and we demand you change it. (Chief Constable response: “Let’s see what we can do.”)
  • We don’t like (enter any test here): You get the idea!

That may be a little cynical. Surely, it’s not the way things work. Or is it? There’s a tremendous cacophony surrounding promotion selection tests. Forces and candidates would of course love to identify the Holy Grail of a perfect selection process, but the search continues. In the meantime, the following remains a constant within this change:

  • The police service has to crack on with promoting the current generation of leaders.
  • Voices who agree and those who are opposed to whatever is in place are heard, forces will listen and respond in some way.
  • Plenty of motivated candidates continue to simply get on with preparing to navigate the selection process they face at that time 

You have to learn the rule of the game and then you have to play better than anyone else.” – Albert Einstein

Though forces may listen and make changes, here’s the thing: The critics don’t get to choose the replacement process. There’s often a nasty sting in the tail when they see what is introduced instead. In a classic case of ‘be careful what you wish for’, there’s a whole suite of new selection methods and tests being implemented across forces. And guess what? You couldn’t make this up… candidates don’t like them either!

The image and video below summarises the main routes to promotion. What appeals to you? Or are you willing to put yourself forward as the best available candidate, by simply learning the rules of the game and playing them better than anyone else?

UK promotion process

What About the Military?

Military comparisons for policing

The wise warrior avoids the battle.” – Sun Tzu

Implementing process from the military usually features in ongoing debate. It may well be that some elements of military promotion selection could be implemented. Some are quick to criticise the relevance, e.g. “the police are not the military” and “it’s a very different environment”. Others beg to differ.

Having been a Royal Marine myself, entertain me for a moment to consider how some of the attitudes, views and opinions might play out in a military perspective; if only to raise a rye smile… 

The test in place: Royal Marines Endurance Course. The standard: A tough cross country run over obstacles, gullies and water tunnels, carrying weapon and fighting order, followed by a 4 mile run back to base with a pass or fail shooting test to finish. (One of 4 Commando tests completed in one week).

Here’s how the conversation might start: “Corporal, I’m not sure that having to score so highly in the shooting part of this test after such a long run is fair for those who are not as good at shooting after strenuous exertion. Personally, I don’t like it and, in my opinion, the two tests could easily be split to allow those who can successfully complete both elements separately, but not together, to do so; thereby avoiding the additional and quite unnecessary pressure of a pass or fail when these aspects are combined. It’s a more inclusive approach and there’s every chance more of us would get through the test.”  

Here’s how it might (not) end: “Thanks for sharing your views, I very much appreciate it. After your 9-mile speed march tomorrow, Tarzan Course and 30-mile speed march at the end of the week, I look forward to listening to more of your views and sharing them with the Commanding Officer.”

So maybe policing is rather different after all?

That’s a summary of some of the feelings and issues around the shifting routes to promotion so far, plus a perspective on how we got here. In the next blog (Part 2), I’ll cover more on each element and more importantly, what approach you can take to successfully navigate whatever process is in place for your force. For more in-depth support in the meantime, please feel free to download a guide… 

Yours Faithfully, Steve


If you found this blog helpful, you can hit the ground running with your promotion preparation. Get your personal digital promotion toolkit, attend my Police Promotion Masterclass or contact me to arrange personal coaching support. If you first want to explore completely free content, I have a bunch of free guides plus free blog content both here on my Rank Success Blog and via my Police Hour articles.