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The Brilliant White Shirt Syndrome – Can Technology break through?

‎07-23-2014 12:14 PM - edited ‎09-30-2015 07:05 AM

By:  Mario Devargas, Solution Executive, Hewlett Packard Company


police shirt - compressed.jpgBrilliant white shirts, a fashion statement or a cultural necessity?  Since the 19th century, the white shirt has been a symbol of power, wealth, trust, elegance, simplicity and grace; the wearer is making a statement - they are part of the governing class system (as very eloquently depicted in this BBC Class sketch from 1966).  


The dress code in traditional environments can define its culture; its hierarchy – what you do and what you don’t do in the organisation.  Some use it as a tool to subjugate the masses and to rationalize their way of doing things.  An excellent explanation of public white-shirted power is described by Mariano José de Larra in his book Vuelva usted mañana (written in 1832). Have things changed today or are some public entities still behaving in this way to their customers?


Many corporate cultures have infused this principle into their very DNA – and none more so than public services institutions like police and fire departments, local authorities, etc.  These uniformed agencies support the concept of “the way we do things around here.” 


Take for instance a typical UK police force, where cuts in funding have forced them to create a two-culture organisation – the police-officer rank culture and the less expensive police-staff culture.  The crisp-starched white collar creates an image of control and can visually define the officers to one another (as well as their role and position relative to the public they serve). Some believe that police staffs are only concerned with getting ahead, having sold out to those who do not understand “real” police work, with its constant ambiguities and relentless pressure to “do the right thing, right now.” Some officers believe they are on their own, forced to do society's dirty work with little understanding from the public and little support from their manager/colleagues and leaders. They are convinced that (as one officer told me) “the white shirt (collar and tie) is a return to the traditional image and values of British policing which the public trusts, don’t they?” – and that is all they need to consider. This only serves to propagate the Brilliant White Shirt Syndrome even further.


However, real, meaningful public trust today is not earned by a brilliant white shirt.  Twenty-first century policing needs to evolve from dependency on the “brilliant white shirt culture” of control and authority into a citizen-centric and collaborative service.  Can Information Technology help cut through cultural barriers between police and citizens, between police officers and their police-staff colleagues, and between real competency and the dependency on the white shirt control syndrome? 


In short, the time has come to gain public trust through substance, not style or image – and I believe that IT can be that agent of change, if implemented and managed properly - as demonstrated by a UK Northern Police force in their use of Twitter to engage its customers.


Police forces in the 21st century face many complex challenges. Unlike their 19th century counterparts, however, they have a key advantage – they have access to unlimited information and “direct electronic access” to all their customers – the public.  To ensure their skills, technology, resources and good intentions are not overly stretched, police forces must be able to cut through a myriad of issues in order to focus on what is most important.


Laptops, mobile smart phones, digital photography, digital recording, DNA science are a few of the technologies that increase the effectiveness of police officers.   These technologies enable the instant collection, storage and retrieval of vast amounts of data.  They improve the knowledge and skills of police officers, enabling them to find the information they need to resolve issues without having to refer to a higher rank.  They encourage the growth of informal information sharing, promote lateral as opposed to just vertical communication, reduce reliance on organisational boundaries and lead to a greater assertion of autonomy.


Future technological innovations will further transform traditional relationships and practices and challenge police officers and managers to find new ways of ensuring accountability for conduct, performance and the achievement of organisational goals.  The two-culture syndrome will evolve into “managers” (whether staff or officers) having to transform their command, control style and practices into a dynamic collaborative team output-driven service.  Increased interaction with the public will drive the use of technology even further, with virtual engagement becoming a requirement.


Police forces may become more independent in their style and culture/behaviours – from daily contact, cooperative work relationships and routines, to independent officers linked virtually by electronic means rather than physical contact.  


This leads to the importance of how technology is managed and used if it is to be the vehicle for creating public trust through substance.  As technology becomes more pervasive in people’s lives, there is a growing distrust and fear of loss of privacy – especially when used by law enforcement. 


Fear of technology is oftentimes associated with a lack of understanding the perils of lax security in the daily use of technology.  The tendency is to use technology with naivety, assuming that the technology providers will protect them and the government will protect their privacy via legislation and enforcement.


Police forces have a duty-of-care to protect its citizens; technology is just another tool to be used toward that end.  They must educate the public within a true transparency context.  They must be transparent in the way they protect, the way they inform the way they collaborate with other agencies, and so on.  Transparency is a big thing to ask of many traditional risk-averse law enforcement agencies – however, I would argue that without it, public trust will always revert back to the white-shirt syndrome of secrecy and control.


Change is coming; society demands it.  The 19th century brilliant white shirt may become a thing of the past, only to be worn on ceremonial events.   Technology is coming into the market faster and faster every day, leaving little time to absorb one change before another is upon us.  We must therefore constantly look to the future in order to survive, because anticipating change provides more time to accept and adjust to it.  Otherwise, we will be constantly reacting and never really in control. 


Managing change in any organisation is about thinking strategically and planning for the short and long term.  It can be difficult for a police force to keep this perspective in view because present circumstances and the unexpected are constantly competing for attention. However, those who do not extend their thought horizon will lose control of their destinies and not move policing along an evolutionary path toward a more citizen-centric collaborative relationship – and no longer be dependent on the brilliant white shirt. 


Previous blogs by Mario Devargas:


Related links: 


About the Author


Mario Devargas.jpgMario Devargas, Solution Executive, Hewlett Packard Company

Mario is fifty+ year-old Spaniard with English undertones – living in Preston, North West England.  He has worked in the Information Technology field for over 30 years, most recently in the Public Sector as IT Director for a Northern UK Metropolitan Council and as CIO for the second largest Police Force in the UK.  As a Senior Executive he majors on advising organisations on Corporate IS Strategy, Collaborative Shared IS services and building and leading high-performing IS teams.

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on ‎08-04-2014 07:05 AM

Very interesting article.  As someone whose only experience of the police is as a member of the public, I can't add a lot to the discussion about management style and technology.  However, perhaps one other element to this is debate is that of gender: the "crisp white shirt" and tie are clearly male items of clothing and their use perpetuates the stereotype that senior and managerial roles are for men rather than women.  I have noticed female managers in the police force wearing slightly adapted uniform, but that is how it comes over - as male uniform slightly adapted.  If what you say about derss code re-inforcing manager/staff roles, then perhaps the police force should also consider having uniforms that do not just promote these hierarchical stereotypes.

on ‎08-06-2014 12:37 PM



Thank you very much for your comment.  Great perception re how a male dominated environment can use the white-shirt syndrome towards the female workforce.  In fact, as you indicate - within a hierachical rank-based environment this is seen in the similarity of what is worn in order to fit in.  If not within the rank structure (police staff) then "power dressing" is sometimes the norm.


Thank you - keep your comments coming.

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