Andy Christopher headshot It’s hard to think of anything more important than protecting children. It’s something we all, as human beings, inherently understand. A vivid reminder of our shared humanity.
It’s frustrating, then, to discover that child protection investigations are amongst the biggest challenges facing law enforcement, health and social care agencies. Information about vulnerable children is distributed across different systems and organisations. This means that investigations require time and expertise from multiple agencies, all the while threatening serious and potentially life-changing consequences for the victims.
Andy Christopher is trying to change all that.
A Police Staff Manager for Gloucestershire Constabulary, he is responsible for all aspects of the police contribution to the county’s Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), which focuses on prevention and detection of abuse to children, as well as anyone aged under 18 who are at risk of abuse. It’s a job replete with challenges, but one that also offers key opportunities to make a real difference.
“What I’ve achieved in the last five years is probably more than I’ve achieved in the previous 20,” he reflects. “The MASH is now significantly bigger and operating across many more areas but there is much more still to do.”

Across the thin blue line

Thin Blue Line icon As a 37-year police veteran, Christopher clearly loves his career choice, but a career in uniform did not always beckon, even with a father who was also on the force. In reality, he freely admits that as a boy growing up he had little idea about what to do. Until, that is, his dad brought home an application form to join the police cadets.
“Even though it wasn’t what I’d set my heart on, I filled in the paperwork and got accepted, joining Gloucestershire Police Cadets at the age of 16, which was my first full time job,” he recalls. 
At the time, the nature of his father’s job meant that Christopher’s family frequently moved areas – resulting in his son attending eight different schools, an experience which, he says, made him more resilient as a result. “It actually gave me the motivation to work hard and do well once I did leave full time education,” he explains. “Not doing particularly well at school gave me the drive and desire to work hard that I perhaps wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
And he was quick to hit the ground running. “I was very quickly convinced that this is what I wanted to do,” he says, firmly. “The variety that was available was really important, but let’s not forget it was exciting too!”
After his “fair share” of uniform and patrol work, Christopher became a detective, all the while staying with the Gloucestershire Constabulary.  Looking back, he says that it was in this period that he learned how to really lead a team of individuals – far more useful than just studying management manuals.
“Although you may have may have moments of annoyance and frustration, everyone’s perspective is important and you have to listen and understand what they are saying before making decisions,” he says. “Obviously, dynamic decisions have to be made quickly but you learn to quickly assess what’s going on around you. What you really want is when you know your team well enough to know what they will be thinking before they tell you – which means you have a very good understanding of your team.”

Moving up the ranks

Ranks icon One of his most formative experiences was setting up the Gloucestershire anti-corruption unit, a role which was eye-opening in several different respects. “It gave me a completely different knowledge of working strategically and seeing things from different angles,” he explains. “It helped me see an organisation from different sides which, again, makes you a better manager.”
And it also led him into the uncomfortable position of having to investigate former colleagues, or even friends on occasion. Christopher, though, is clear that he could not, and would not, flinch from the challenge. “My view, and it is probably quite a sad view, is that ‘I have a job to do and I don’t get paid to be liked’ so I had to do my job and do it properly,” he says.
“None of us wanted to be working with people who were breaking the rules. It was challenging – you get to know things that maybe you don’t want to know – but you have to keep a sensible perspective and go in with a very open mind, which is what you should be doing in policing and law enforcement anyway. It’s about going in with an open mind, gathering the facts and making an assessment. And that’s probably quite a good lesson for life in fact.”
When asked about how policing has changed since he first pulled on his uniform, Christopher cites the move to a more collegiate way of doing things as prime among many shifts in approach. “We’re now here to work with and to serve, rather than direct,” he explains. “It’s much more about collaborative working and understanding other perspectives.”
“We’re now here to work with and to serve, rather than direct. It’s much more about collaborative working and understanding other perspectives” Andy Christopher, Police Staff Manager at Gloucestershire Constabulary
He goes on to say that this new style of policing is rooted in many different factors, not least the caustic relationship which has existed between the police and some sections of society over time. “It was very much us against them – the miners vs the police, the black community vs the police – and I think it started to become apparent then that we hadn’t got this right,” he concedes. “We needed to be working with people, and we shouldn’t be separating them because of their role or job, their colour or race, or anything.”
This process, he continues, is ongoing, but he also admits to some frustration with media coverage that often paints a uniformly negative picture of policing up and down the country. “It can be exasperating when bad examples make the headlines and we don’t see the enormous amount of positive work that is going on in the background,” he says. “This is disappointing but you’ve also got to accept that it’s part of life to be unable to report all the good stories all the time – good stories don’t make news – but we’re not good at celebrating success.”
This, he adds, can affect people’s day-to-day motivation and mental health. “I question how long people stay in this environment because it is wearing and sometimes you finish the day and you think to yourself ‘all I’ve done today is deal with complaints and negativity’”, he says. “Many the time I’ve had a tough day and asked myself ‘how long can I keep doing this and is it time to finish?’, but then you come back in the next day and see things in a different light, and set about trying to turn the negatives into positives.”

MASH calling

MASH Calling icon Christopher has been working at the Gloucestershire MASH since 2014. The unit is a partnership between the council, schools, the police, the Domestic Abuse Support Service, and Gloucestershire Health Services, all working together to safeguard children, young people and vulnerable adults.
When a professional, family member or member of the public is concerned about a child or young
person’s welfare or safety, this information will come to the MASH so it can be looked at. Its team then shares information to decide if the child or young person has been harmed or could be harmed in the future, or if the child or young person would benefit from support from other people who help children and families. This requires working with partners in sensitive areas to protect the vulnerable in our communities, understanding risk, and being able to make informed decisions around risk management.
Christopher is at pains to stress the value of how his past experiences helped him adapt to this fresh challenge. “Coming into public protection made me realise that having a diverse skills-set helps you come into a new arena and helps you review what’s come before and where you need to go,” he says.
“I think this is what really gave me the ability to grow the MASH team – when I took over there were five members of staff but I’ve now got 44 doing far more than just data-inputting. Being able to do that with partner agencies who have different objectives and styles of operating has been frustrating at times, but also probably the most rewarding.”
"Coming into public protection made me realise that having a diverse skill-set helps you review what's come before and where you need to go. I think this is what really gave me the ability to grow the MASH team - when i took over there were five members of staff but i've now got 44 doing far more than just data-inputting." Andy Christopher, Police Staff Manager at Gloucestershire Constabulary
At the same time, though, he is very much focused on where the unit needs to develop – such as in its use of data analytics.  “Using machines to do things that would otherwise require a lot of humans is a really positive step,” he says. “We need people who understand the business to be able to contribute and persuade others that this is the right thing to do. I’d very much like to be involved in trying to make us more efficient and more effective, using technology in order for us to do that. I bet in five to 10 years’ time that data analysis and predictive analytics is what everyone will be using.”
Greater use of data will also enable his team to track and support, in real-time, the county’s most vulnerable, particularly in the COVID-shaped era we find ourselves in. “It’s difficult to say whether things have gone up or down as we’re not able to properly assess everything yet,” says Christopher. “Adult at risk referrals have gone through the roof, whereas the child protection referrals went down significantly in the first four or five months since March, but they have now started to creep back up. Domestic abuse has risen but we haven’t yet seen the increases predicted in the media.”

Doing the right thing

Right thing icon While some of his peers have opted for early retirement, Christopher has no intention of moving on any time soon. On the contrary, he feels that his entire career has been about getting him ship shape for the ever-evolving challenges of life at the MASH – particularly the ability to trust his instincts.
“It’s given me the confidence to just always do the right thing – identify what I actually need to do to protect a vulnerable person,” he says. “If a procedure as set out in a book or manual doesn’t work, we should be brave enough to step outside of them, carefully rationalising and documenting why, and that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learnt over the past five years.  If I was younger I’d be very nervous about making these calls but now I’m very comfortable with it and make extra effort that the team here knows they will be supported by me if they take a similar approach.”
"If a procedure as set out in a book or manual doesn't work, we should be brave enough to step outside of them, carefully rationalising and documenting why, and that's probably the biggest thing I've learnt over the past five years" Andy Christopher, Police Staff Manager at Gloucestershire Constabulary
It’s clear that both Christopher and his team – police and civilian alike – are at full throttle fulfilling the basic Peelian Policing Principle which states that the first duty of a constable is ‘the protection of life’. “If we’re not doing that properly then what is the point of us being here?” asks Christopher.
Gloucestershire’s most vulnerable are surely very thankful that they are.

About the author
Ravi Gogna is a Senior Solutions Consultant at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence

Further Reading:

  • To serve and protect. Dhyana Flitcroft spends her days protecting children from online harm – a role of huge importance but one not for the fainthearted. She tells Tom Whiddett about how she got there and the enduring allure of public service  
  • Getting government working. What are the challenges, barriers and opportunities to multi-agency and collaborative working in local public service delivery? Ravi Gogna sets out some ideas
  • Children first and always. The digital age has opened up abundant new opportunities for the next generation. But with new technology comes new threats. Tom Whiddett takes a look at the all-consuming task of protecting children from digital harm
  • Empowering people and places. How can public service delivery adapt to the evolving demands and challenges of the 21st century? Ravi Gogna explains how technology, combined with a place-based approach, can help shape next generation policymaking  
  • Saving the World (Wide Web). What happens to young people on the web and how you can help prevent online exploitation? Victoria Knight reports from a recent event held by GCHQ, Manchester University and BAE Systems Applied Intelligence which sought to give young people an insight into how to stay safer online.
  • Delivering education differently. What Alok Raj lacks in civil service experience is more than made up for by a background steeped in technology and impact. Here, he tells Mivy James life at the Department for Education, the importance of strong and adaptable IT infrastructure, and adjusting to working from home

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