Restorative conversations among senior members of An garda Síochána: an organisational initiative

An Garda Síochána, Kennedy Institute and Facing Forward

Restorative conversations among senior members of An Garda Síochána: An organisational initiative

Why use a restorative approach?

During 2016 and 2017, a number of events impacted the public perception of, and the morale within, An Garda Síochána. Facing Forward approached a member of An Garda Síochána and, as an alumnus of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention, she connected the three organisations together.

In September 2017, the Kennedy Institute hosted a conversation between Terry O’Connell – an Australian former police officer and restorative practitioner who had extensive experience working with police forces around the world, and who was delivering a programme of work with members of An Garda Síochána – and senior members of An Garda Síochána. It was clear from these conversations that ‘things have gone wrong’ and ‘people are hurting’.

Following that conversation, the Institute and colleagues in Facing Forward offered to support conversations within An Gardaí Síochána. In October 2017, this led to three days of restorative conversations in groups of 12-15 among the 220+ senior managers at Superintendent, Chief Superintendent, Assistant Commissioner, Assistant Principal Officer and Principal Officer grades. Each group was facilitated by a restorative practitioner.

The aim of these conversations was to engage senior colleagues in dialogue during a time of uncertainty and change. Conversations sought to restore relationships and trust, and to repair harm. They had, as their focus, the importance of colleagues having the space to speak with, and listen to, one another in relation to the challenges faced, and that were still to be faced. They also considered the opportunities to restore confidence and relationships, both within and outside An Garda Síochána.

There were five primary agreements in place with the organising team of An Garda Síochána. The first was that the focus and title for these conversations was ‘Shaping your Future’. The second was the addition of a third date for restorative conversations in late October, as it emerged that the originally planned two days in early October could not accommodate all the senior members of the service. The third agreement was that all participants would come together in November to allow everyone involved to reflect and talk with one another about shared understandings coming from their conversations. The fourth agreement was that the Chatham House Rule would inform the confidential nature of the content of these small- and whole-group conversations, providing ‘safe spaces to talk’. Finally, it was agreed that the Garda communications team would respond to any media interest that arose.

The restorative conversations

The Kennedy Institute staff collaborated with other experienced restorative practitioners in Facing Forward as a team to facilitate the restorative conversations in October and November 2017. Seven facilitators (six of whom were present on each day) came together to design a three-phase restorative process: Building Community; Exploring the Harm and Hurt; and Repairing the Harm and Hurt. Each facilitator would have a talking piece to be passed around the circle and held by each person as they responded to each question. All participants would be required to wait until the talking piece arrived at them to speak, but were not obliged to speak when it came to them. People would stay in the room with their circle of colleagues for the day, with a break for lunch. The team agreed the questions to be asked within each circle, the process for collecting key points arising from each circle, the theming and presentation of those points, and the process to continue the dialogue with all participants together. 

Over the course of the initial three days, all participants met at the beginning of the day. The facilitators were introduced and the process for the day was explained. Each person went to a room with 11 other colleagues and one of six facilitators. The room was set out in a circle. They discussed the Chatham House Rule and why it was important in creating a safe space for their conversations. Volunteers were then asked to take notes as to what was said, without recording the names of those speaking. The agreement was that the notes would be handed to the facilitator at the end of the day.

During the first part of the day, each person had the opportunity to reflect together on four questions:

  • What brought you into An Garda Síochána?
  • What has kept you here?
  • What has happened recently?
  • How has it impacted you?

In the afternoon, each person reflected on the question:

Where do you go from here, or what needs to happen next?

Feedback sessions

All those facilitating the circles over the three days analysed the data collected in the notes, identified the key themes arising, and prepared PowerPoint slides to continue the dialogue with the whole group in November. The team reflected back using, as much as possible, the words that were used by the Gardaí during the restorative conversations.

Gardaí sat at round tables of 12 in a large room during the second, whole-group conversation. The reflections were on screen for all to see. After each section, the following questions were asked:

  • What would you add to that?
  • What else?
  • How does it feel to hear this?
  • What has been missed?

Additional points were noted on the screen and dialogue developed within the room. In the afternoon, the focus of the dialogue moved to the future, as participants were asked to reflect with colleagues at their table and then share their thoughts on the following questions:

Based on what you have heard, and to see meaningful change by November 2018:

  • What would be the three most important things that need to happen and why?
  • What is in your power and control as a senior manager to make this happen?
  • If it is not in your power and control – who has the power and control to make the changes and what would you ask them to do differently?
  • If AGS was to be a community where people’s voices are heard, what would you do to ensure that is a reality in the coming year?

The dialogue ended with a conversation together on:

  • What do you want to do with this information now?
  • Who is going to be responsible for holding this process?
  • How do you want to monitor and review your progress?
  • Who else do you want to spread the conversations to?
  • What will be different in November 2018?

The impact of the restorative approach

Feedback from participants on all days was very positive and centred on the value of the sessions in improving understanding, building trust and having honest conversations with colleagues through open dialogue. The use of circles in the small-group sessions created an informal atmosphere and helped provide the dynamics needed for colleagues to speak honestly. The circular tables also facilitated colleagues to speak together in the larger gathering. There was no sharing of the content of either the circle conversations or the larger group dialogue with the media, other than through An Garda Síochána’s communications team. 

The feedback included a note of caution that, while the process was a ‘first’, allowing people to talk about the impact their recent history had on them and giving people hope, there was a danger of this being a ‘talking shop’ unless there was follow through.

In March 2018, there was a follow up meeting between the organisers within An Garda Síochána and the Kennedy Institute. In April 2018, an outline plan was in place based on the reflections in from November 2017. Members of the Kennedy Institute had also been invited to meet with the Policing Authority to discuss supporting the relationship between them and An Garda Síochána.

In May 2018, this same approach – in the larger group – allowed for feedback to be given to everyone on the plan and to identify ‘green shoots’ since the end of 2017. There was also an opportunity to reflect on the results of a Cultural Audit undertaken by external consultants. The reflections of the group were juxtaposed with some of the findings from the audit.

In June 2018, one unit within An Gardaí Síochána adopted this same dialogue approach with their staff. Feedback was that it had been a useful and enlightening experience. The Kennedy Institute was also invited to share the process with the Commission on the Future of Policing in July that year.