The supervisor’s span of control

Span of control is the term used to describe the number of direct reports a supervisor has.
Narrow spans of control imply close supervision. Wider spans of control require more autonomy on the part of those being supervised.

There is no generally applicable optimum span of control; the ratio depends on numerous variables including, organisational structure, available technology, the functions being performed, and the competencies of the individual supervisor and staff.

The foundation of this principle is to increase administrative efficiency, while retaining effectiveness within the organisation. The futurist Alvin Toffler predicted that to survive in the 21st Century, organisations would have to become significantly less top heavy. Today, new ways of working, keeping people safe, but also designed to deliver massive savings over successive and forthcoming financial years are required – span of control – is a critical figure because it offers opportunity to significantly reduce costs.

In the wake of damaging concerns about police integrity, reduced officer numbers to meet the comprehensive spending review are now cited as leading to ‘supervision issues’.

So given plans to cut over one thousand sergeants in the Metropolitan police, you might be forgiven if your first thought is ‘you couldn’t make this up’, while some are predicting that forces are slowly being ‘asset stripped’ for privatisation with politicians knowing the price of everything but not the value of the office of constable (or sergeants as their first line supervisors).

The key is balance

Get it right – the organisation functions efficiently. But get it wrong and corruption gets its foot in the door, in turn corroding public confidence and trust.

One reason to cut supervisory positions is to increase the span of control from the current ratio of 1 sergeant to 4 constables (shown by the Met’s latest ‘Value for Money Profile’ published by HMIC) to bring it into line with other forces (where the span of control is nearer to 1:6). It is argued that with larger spans, the costs of supervision would tend to be reduced because a smaller percentage of the organisation are supervisors. On the other hand, if the span of control is too large, the supervisor may not have the capacity to supervise effectively.

Organisations often have broad spans of control at some points and relatively narrow spans of control at other points. The growing trend in business management is towards flatter organisational structures and higher spans of control. Supporters of this cite better communications, increased financial and personnel responsibility, greater flexibility, and increased delegation by supervisors. Staff favour these conditions because they receive less micromanagement, faster decision making, more responsibility and feel they are more trusted.

The role of sergeant is the most important and influential position within the organisation. Span of control is of crucial importance, because sergeants define service delivery and transmit the values, standards and culture of the service to the men and women under their supervision. It is the sergeant who based on job knowledge and experience, directs the daily work of their team.Sergeant role

“The sergeant’s position demands strong leadership, self confidence, competence, management skills and above all an understanding of the influence they have as role models in the organisation.” – Edward Werder

In simple terms the service cannot function well without good sergeants or enough of them. Reducing police numbers carries risks to the public and reducing supervisors may also carry real risks.

Get the span of control right and the rewards are a police service that is more adaptable and innovative as well as being operationally excellent – but at the heart of achieving this will always be effective supervisors – and there needs to be enough of them.

This also means increased competition for aspiring Police Constables…

Reducing supervisory positions means less opportunity for those aspiring to promotions. It also ensures selection processes are highly competitive. Signs of this are emerging with forces now requiring presentations in addition to an interview panel.

Highly competitive processes are not confined to UK police forces. It is in the best interests of the organisation to have a rich pool of qualified individuals and be able to promote the ‘best of the best’ candidates.

Effective preparation takes on new significance for those aiming to succeed in what might be described by the organisation as a healthy situation in terms of choice when filling vacancies that arise for supervisors. The application booklet is now no longer the beginning of the promotion process, but rather the end of the beginning.

Kind Regards, Steve

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