The research literature about Peer Reviews is of relevance to policing in two main ways. Firstly, it is the standardised way that most published research is assessed for validity and quality (for example in academic journals) and, secondly, because it is also a term that describes a function that can help professional practice (like policing) improve.
It’s that latter use of the term in particular that we explore here – to look at what is peer reviewing and how it can help professional policing on the ground.
What is a peer review?
Henry Oldenburg (1619-1677) is often credited as being the original founder of the principle of a peer review, in the academic context. Oldenburg was a founding editor of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the longest running scientific journal in the world, founded in 1660.
Peer Reviews, as a way of exploring peer learning and lessons learned, have been used by Governments (such as via the United Nations) and in many industrial applications, ranging from clinical medicine to accountancy, and from aviation to ship building. The benefit is to utilise a good working understanding of the contextual operational detail but where fresh insights are sought to ‘find and fix’, enrich discussion, stimulate innovation, and promote transparency and experience-sharing. The common goal is to use collaborative advantage to get better, faster.
A Peer Review in a professional workplace context involves exploration by another (‘a fresh pair of eyes’), such as an equivalent professional who works elsewhere, to review quality and help identify any lessons to be learned. The notion of learning here can be seen to align to Bloom’s (1956) taxonomical levels of understanding from comprehension to analysis, in that ‘learning’ might not always be about discovering brand new knowledge for the first time, but also about understanding how existing knowledge can be better applied and synthesised.
Technical peer reviews can be found within engineering, which often involve small specialist teams exploring specific product components or uses, and in this sense can help ‘stress test’. As a proactive approach, this type of review can offer a form of trouble-shooting pre-mortem, where key questions are what, how and why.
Peer reviewing in policing
Forces are able to draw on peers to review interoperability and continuous improvement, such as in a 28-day review of a major crime. You can see more about such a process here in the Major Crime Investigation Manual (November 2021) https://library.college.police.uk/docs/NPCC/Major-Crime-Investigation-Manual-Nov-2021.pdf.
One of the benefits is to help overcome any insularity of thinking and counter the psychology of homophily (where people can value things greater that agree with their existing outlook), to better enable thinking as a group rather than groupthink (Sunstein and Hastie, 2015). Metaphorically, dots have to be found before they can then be joined up, and peer insight can help.
Policing operates in such a complex world that collaborating as peers, and bringing people together from different disciplines, offers a way to enhance both capacity and capability. With all the metrics and inspection regime around policing accountability, peer reviewing is a refreshing change because it’s about coaching and mentoring rather than inspecting: more light, less heat.
Peer learning is about taking a collaborative approach by giving and receiving feedback in order to enhance performance. Griffiths, Housten and Lazenbatt (1995) point to different models of collaborative peer learning, which include workplace mentoring, the proctor model (where a lead exemplar coaches others), to innovative learning cells, parrainage (a buddy system) and discussion forums.
The point of peer learning is to share knowledge, ideas and practice: to enable a shift from independent to interdependent or mutual learning (Boud, 1988). Reciprocal peer learning values simultaneous learning – meaning peers can work together in real-time on a common problem and double their capacity and capability (a problem shared is a problem halved) by comparing notes, as a form of community of practice or learning partnership (Falchikov, 2001). Hopefully you can see the principles in peer learning meld nicely with peer reviewing, with a joint emphasis on learning together, rather than simply judging each other from a distance, and offer an agile way to get better, faster.