Commissioner Drew Harris on Leading Institutional Transformation
An Insight from the 2019 Public Safety Summit
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Soon after Drew Harris was appointed the new Commissioner of An Garda Síochána in June 2018, the Justice Minister of Ireland announced a four year plan to implement recommendations from the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. Numerous scandals had beset the Garda in recent years, and the Commission had determined that the Garda was in need not just of reformation, but total transformation if it were to become the world-class police force it aspired to be. Less than a year into the job, Harris was tasked with leading this transformation.

As is the case for many other leaders seeking to make change, Harris finds that culture is the largest stumbling block. According to a cultural audit conducted recently, the Garda has little trust in itself as an institution. “People identify with their immediate team, but not with the organization,” says Harris, and individuals feel they succeed “despite the limitations of the organization.” Officers have some reason to think this is true: On the local level, the Garda has plenty to be proud of, particularly its relationship with residents, whom report crimes at a far higher rate than in other European countries, but the lines of communication within the organization are failing. “Things just go up and down, up and down,” says Harris. “Our structure is too hierarchal and too top-heavy, and that has to change.”

In order to be invested in that change, Garda staff need to believe that it is possible. For that reason, Harris has made a point of setting the tone and leading by example. “In the end your character and your values and what you believe in and the vision you have for your organization, those percolate through,” he says. “They’re pretty good at identifying [if] there’s a gap between what you’re saying and what you’re doing… I’m very conscious of that.”

Harris has a few strategies for closing that gap. One that he believes to be particularly important is communicating to the public. In doing so, he makes himself accountable for the change that needs to happen, which he has found to help his staff to believe it possible and take the mission seriously. In addition, it gives him the chance to demonstrate the values he wishes to see represented in the Garda and to unify the organization behind a particular vision for the future.

It is your responsibility to make the time to be proactive and find space to see a different way and to lead people through.

Drew Harris
Commissioner, An Garda Síochána

Another strategy he uses is visiting his staff as much as he can. An Garda Síochána is the unitary police force for the Republic of Ireland, and it has around 15,000 officers in 500 stations spread across a landmass roughly the size of West Virginia, which means that many stations have gone a great while without a visit from Garda’s senior leadership. During a visit to the town of Tuam, Harris learned that a Commissioner hadn’t visited since 1987. Harris was struck by this, and it further reinforced the severity of the disconnect between officers and the larger organization. Though he doubts he himself will be able to visit all of them, he believes in the importance of trying, at least as a first step toward strengthening the lines of communication running through the Garda.

Above all, Harris believes leaders need to be proactive, even when they think matters are beyond their control. For such a large organization, overcoming inertia is no small feat, but Harris implores leaders that taking small steps like making public promises and being visible to members of your organization still matter greatly. “It is your responsibility to make the time to be proactive and find space to see a different way and to lead people through,” he says.


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