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Ottawa Strategic Staffing Initiative

By Debra Frazer, Director General, and Knowlton Roberts, Superintendent, Ottawa Police Service, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

ow does an organization add over 200 new positions and save more than $7 million? Quite simply, by doing its homework. That is exactly what the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) did when developing its comprehensive staffing plan. Aptly named the Strategic Staffing Initiative (SSI), the goal of the plan was to position the agency to have the right number and the best personnel in place to meet the demand for service and community needs.

Staffing Crisis

In 1995, three municipal police agencies amalgamated to form the OPS. At the time, sworn officers accounted for 1,054 of the agency’s total complement of 1,487 (just over 70 percent). The remaining 433 positions were civilian, categorized as either permanent or full-time term. Most sworn and civilian positions were deployed under the service delivery model (SDM), which was developed in the initial years following amalgamation and was refined through a process of continuous review and improvement undertaken from 1998 to 2001. The SDM was a strong fit with policing needs in the community. The preliminary results of SDM evaluation showed that employees generally agreed with the policing approach taken in the new model but pointed to high levels of staff shortages as a key shortcoming. In any given quarter, more than 80 of the total 1,054 sworn officer positions in the SDM were temporarily vacant.

Several external factors that had emerged in the years leading up to 2001 were creating difficulties with staffing. High levels of population growth in the city of Ottawa were increasing demands for police service, especially in the fast-growing suburban areas. The introduction of the Provincial Adequacy Standards meant changes to the functions that the Ottawa Police Service must provide. There were demands for new kinds of services to meet the specific needs of emerging communities. The expanding elderly population was vulnerable to forms of crime that do not affect other populations as severely, such as fraud and abuse. The OPS faced expanding criminal enterprise in new areas such as Internet-based crime. New mandatory provincial initiatives such as the Major Case Management System and the Sex Offender Registry required a high level of support from both sworn and civilian personnel. The threshold of excellence required in the court setting dictated a more comprehensive disclosure process and a more expert police witness. Existing staffing levels no longer met the increasing demands for new services being made as a result of changing community demographics, emerging and changing forms of crime, economic pressures, and legislative requirements.

The pressure created by external factors was compounded by internal staffing difficulties. Unprecedented retirement levels, brought on in part due to favorable changes to pension benefit disbursements, were pushing retirement levels to all-time highs. The level of retirements at the time meant that in any quarter roughly 50 sworn officer positions and 12 civilian Communications Center positions went vacant. Data for the coming five years confirmed that retirements would peak at a level of roughly 50 to 54 members annually and that this peak would last for four to six years. Given the nine-month lead time needed to train new officers, this was creating temporary vacancies in key areas. The vacancy problem was compounded by federal legislation that began providing for extended maternity leaves of up to one year. High numbers of young officers were opting to take maternity and parental leave. The lack of mechanisms to properly replace personnel on leave meant that many extended absences became extended vacancies. Overtime in some sections was running rampant; frontline staff members were on the verge of burning out; and community satisfaction with some police services was in decline. Together, these factors were placing significant strain on the OPS’s complement of 1,486 sworn and civilian personnel in 2001.

A comprehensive review of human resources and operational data confirmed the anecdotal evidence that was heard both internally and externally. Staffing shortfalls were exacerbated when officers took temporary leave; retirements were creating significant gaps in staffing levels; and existing staffing levels no longer met the increasing demands for new services. Data from the human resource information system, call taking, call response tracking systems, and satisfaction survey results pointed to the areas with the most temporary vacancies. The overwhelming majority of temporary sworn vacancies (66 percent) were carried in the patrol and district area of the SDM. The remaining vacancies were shared primarily between the criminal investigative services area (18 percent) and support services (12 percent). Fully 213 new positions (an 8.7 percent increase in staffing) would be needed to meet the increasing demand for service. The cost of hiring that many people would be $12.2 million in new operating funds and $4.2 million in one-time capital funds.

The data depicted a serious situation. It was becoming increasingly challenging to provide effective, efficient, high-caliber police services to the community on a regular basis. The shortage of active patrol officers, staffed at an average of about 84 percent at the time, was causing problems. Officers complained of going from “call to call to call.” It was clear that overtime costs were crippling some sections of the agency. Overtime costs were rising and becoming unpredictable, about 11 times greater than budgeted in the Communications Center and eight times more than budgeted in the Court Security and Temporary Custody sections. That fact was not surprising: managers often had to fall back on overtime as a strategy to ensure that frontline positions were staffed every day.

It was evident to supervisors that staffing was a significant problem. By 2001, the community and its elected officials were echoing those concerns. The constant turnover of neighborhood officers was a concern in the community. Just as these officers got to know the issues in the community to which they were assigned, they would frequently be transferred back to a frontline role for an undetermined period to cover for an officer on leave. The neighborhood role was left unfilled, and there was no certainty that the previous incumbent would return. The community clearly expressed its dissatisfaction with the “revolving door.”

OPS Response

With pressures mounting, the OPS knew it had to address the situation. During its regular business planning process in 2001, the agency started taking a hard look at the staffing issue. It was clear that change was needed. Some short-term solutions such as restricting secondments and operational backfilling helped ease the pressures, but a more permanent solution had to be found. As the authors of Strategic Human Resources Analysis of Public Policing in Canada point out, overtime is not a viable operating strategy in the medium or long term: “Budget reductions, unplanned events, leaves and unfilled vacancies all contribute to significant staff overtime. In addition, pressures on overtime budgets can limit the length and scope of investigations. These competing elements can negatively impact staff morale, resulting in increased burnout and greater use of sick leave, thus compounding the problem.”1 The OPS risked financial turmoil, a burnt-out workforce, and a dissatisfied public. In response, it developed goals around staffing practices in its business plan.

By 2001, the OPS had demonstrated a strong track record of implementing innovative solutions to help and meet staffing needs through internal redeployment. Beginning with amalgamation in 1995, the agency had implemented a number of strategies to increase operational efficiencies and streamline managerial processes. In 2001, managers across the police service were part of a comprehensive organizational review. They looked at the mandate for each section and recommended staffing levels for the 2002 to 2004 time frame to meet these commitments. The goal of these initiatives was to ensure deployment of the maximum number of sworn officer positions in operational roles in the new SDM.

Staff started to mine overtime data like never before, with two goals in mind. The first was to identify to which sections new resources should be deployed first. The second was to develop overtime benchmarks to help measure the impact of what would become the SSI and determine the OPS’s standing when compared to other police services. The information collected both internally and externally helped confirm root causes of the problem and helped form a baseline against which the targets could be set. Key performance measures were established for the ongoing monitoring and reporting activities, as well as to support the planned program evaluation. Numerous monitoring and reporting processes were put in place, and detailed analysis continues to this day. With input and a comprehensive ranking list from senior managers, Executive Command was able to determine the agency’s areas of highest need. The final list totaled almost 100 positions, split almost evenly between sworn and civilian functions.

Executive Command and senior managers met many times during the fall of 2001 to brainstorm and consider various tactics. These discussions were primarily strategic in nature and helped identify the main themes of what would become the SSI. The OPS needed to bolster a number of processes, policies, resources, and tools in the following ways:

  • Enabling operational areas to continue to provide unabated services in sections where long-term vacancies existed because of various types of leave or workplace accommodations

  • Enabling operational areas to minimize the impact of the departure of retiring members by providing a “just-in-time” inventory of fully trained individuals

  • Ensuring staffing levels that would enable district personnel to respond more effectively to community-identified problems such as traffic issues, youth crime, and disorder issues

  • Ensuring that the Ottawa Police Service Board’s strategic agenda and the agency’s business plan were addressed by providing resources directly to areas with specified outcomes

  • Delivering community-based services where there was no provision in the existing staffing model

  • Responding effectively to changes in the complexity of investigations involving organized crime and terrorism by providing necessary resources to enhance proceeds of crime investigations and intelligence-gathering capabilities

New Staffing Plan

To meet the identified staffing challenges, several strategies were explored. Specifically, Ottawa police looked at how other agencies dealt with staffing, attrition, and vacancies. For example, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) were identified as having already conducted cost or resource analyses that could provide models for conducting a similar analysis. Some alternative strategies focused on succession planning, aggressive recruitment campaigns of police officers with experience, and hiring retired police officers to come back to work on short-term and/or part-time contracts to fill in when necessary. Other options included looking at such incentives as flexible schedules, part-time work, and offering first-class constable rank to aid in retention and hiring.

After identifying the problem and looking at potential approaches, the OPS formed a new staffing plan consisting of an active staffing plan, a complement review, and a just-in-time replacement plan. The active staffing plan ensured there was a pool of 60 staff members to replace colleagues absent from duty on approved leaves such as maternity leave, parental leave, or long-term disability. This way the SDM was staffed by active officers, and positions left unfilled by officers on approved leaves were minimized. The complement review component reflected the 2001 organizational review that identified a total of 91 positions, 44 sworn and 47 civilian, needed to meet new and emerging community needs. The just-in-time replacement plan ensured that there was no time lag between recruit hiring/training and replacing retired officers. Traditionally, the nine-month time lag was absorbed into operations. Frontline positions remained temporarily vacant while recruit officers completed their Police College and field training. However, the volume of retirements over five years made this strategy untenable.

In the end, the group identified the need for 213 positions. Once the positions to be reallocated through the patrol deployment and “civilianization” exercises were taken off, the net increase in staff would be 129 positions—an 8.7 percent increase in staffing. This posed a significant problem with obtaining board and Ottawa City Council approval for such an undertaking. The response to this challenge incorporated several actions. The project was branded the Strategic Staffing Initiative. Civilianization was used as part of the strategy to ensure that the agency matched the right skill set and pay level to the required function. It was made clear that the first step would be to review the rotating shift schedule used for patrol deployment to see if positions could be reallocated from platoons to these new requirements and still meet demands for service. Expectations were set by making it clear that the SSI would take four years to accomplish based on the operational, recruiting, and training capabilities of the organization. The price tag of the initiative was placed into context by using a seven-year model of operating and capital costs. Focus was placed on managing sick leave across the organization so that the OPS could say it was effectively using the resources it had.

The project team completed a highly comprehensive analysis of the costs of the proposal. Both the operating and capital budget impacts were considered, including salary and benefits for the new staff, uniforms and equipment, facility changes, and acquisition and operating costs of vehicles and computers, among others. Although it was a four-year staffing plan, budget estimates were prepared to cover through 2008 to capture the full impact of the SSI, including the costs of all the SSI officers who were initially hired as fourth-class rookies reaching first-class constable rank. This “full disclosure” approach showed that the SSI would require $12.2 million for new operating funds and $4.2 million for one-time capital funds. In a time of shrinking municipal funds, this budget would usually be a tough sell. However, the business case was solid. The SSI was approved by the board in February 2002 after a detailed discussion with all stakeholders, and the city council put its stamp of approval on it shortly thereafter.

Plan Implementation

Following board and council approval, the formal project phase was launched. A conscious decision was made to use a project approach to implement the initiative. Both a project purpose statement and a project charter were created with the help of an expert. As defined in the project charter, a detailed project plan was developed to help guide the project team. The main tools used to help set specific project goals included brainstorming exercises, interrelationship diagrams, prioritization, and matrices. Subsequent planning sessions helped narrow the project focus and better define project goals. While much of the research laid the groundwork for other important OPS projects under the umbrella of making the police service the self-proclaimed “employer of choice for all,” the SSI focused on the creation of a four-year staffing scenario to position the agency to respond effectively to the needs of the community.

The SSI incorporated several innovative aspects. Business rules for managers were designed and implemented to support the operational aspects of the initiative, specifically with respect to processes required to support 100 percent active staffing and just-in-time replacement efforts. A formal communication strategy consisted of regular SSI updates posted on the intranet for staff, an internal bulletin, and several stakeholder consultation exercises relating to the development of a new shift schedule. The new shift schedule comprised the existing 42-day rotating shift based on a six-platoon format; a new, fixed day shift based on proportional staffing; and a new, fixed afternoon shift based on a rotation of four days on/four days off. A comprehensive SSI project evaluation plan was developed for each of the SSI streams (100 percent active staffing, complement review, and just-in-time replacement) and the new shift schedule that incorporated the means to evaluate the impact of the SSI on organizational objectives. In addition, a full asset acquisition plan was developed to ensure that the OPS had the required assets to comply with the new shift schedule and the increase in staff complement. Progress was tracked each month through a formal report presented to the Executive Team, and the plan eventually became a key item on the OPS Executive Dashboard. Another key innovation on the dashboard was the sworn officer allocation plan, which detailed the impact of new hires and provided the blueprint for key staffing movements that took place over the life of the project. Based on the large number of officers hired under the SSI, the organization needed to plan for the movement of current patrol officers into other areas of the agency. Newly hired officers were required to spend their first years in patrol. New finance and human resource business rules were developed to support all the elements of the SSI. Each month, the director of human resources presented the Executive Team with an update on the allocation plan, with a focus on how many officers achieved the various milestones that marked the completion of all training and coaching activities. The superintendents also used these data to support their staffing and transfer decisions.

There were some course corrections along the way, which the program had to adopt to fit the city’s financial situation. Nine positions were added to the SSI through a 50/50 cost-sharing program with the province. To recognize the financial issues at the city level, in 2005 the SSI was extended a year, making it a five-year program. The OPS agreed to postpone the final year of the SSI until 2006 and to seek funding from the provincial government. The postponement strategy succeeded beyond the agency’s wildest dreams. The province funded 45 of the SSI positions already in the plan and also funded an expansion of 10 more positions on a 50/50 cost-sharing basis. These initiatives helped to reduce the cost of the SSI to significantly below the original budget estimate.

Impact of the Initiative

Overall, the impact of the SSI cannot be underestimated. On the front line, the addition of 35 active staffing positions in 2003 had an immediate effect on the ratio to non–active staffing positions. Whereas patrol staffing before 2003 hovered in the 85 percent range, after 2004 the non–active staffing ratio remained relatively flat and stable at about 95 percent. The increase in sworn complement helped attain a 20 percent increase in proactive policing. The ability to invest greater amounts of time in proactive policing was also influenced by changes in staff deployment under the new shift schedule. The added resources enabled officers to spend more hours patrolling the community, providing a visible police presence. Active staffing helped the OPS meet the increased service demand from the city despite dramatic increases in reactive workload. Although calls for service grew by approximately 26 percent from 2002 to 2006, Priority 1 average response times and performance improved.

The results were as impressive on the civilian side. For example, the OPS saw significant efficiencies in overtime and court time costs. During the SSI period of 2002–2006, overtime hours per full-time employee were reduced by 21.6 percent. This translated into a reduction of 29,000 hours, or approximately $1 million, based on a 2006 pay rate. Court time was reduced by 63 percent between 2002 and 2006. This equated to $2.3 million, based on a 2006 average pay rate for court overtime. This reduction was due to two factors: (1) the assignment of two SSI positions to the court office to manage the case-by-case screening of officers required for court and (2) a change in the collective agreement reducing the hours officers were credited per off-duty court appearance. Service level performance at the Communications Center improved consistently following the inception of the SSI. The project directed a priority to staffing the Communications Center to improve response and provide faster call response for emergency and nonemergency calls for service. The improvements in the Communications Center had a significant bottom-line impact on overtime costs. Prior to the SSI staffing boost, it was nearly impossible for the Communications Center to stay within budget. Calls had to be answered regardless of shortages in staff, leading to frequent use of overtime. Since then, overtime spending in the Communications Center has decreased significantly, leading to savings of over $370,000 in 2006 compared with 2002.

The SSI was implemented for roughly half the cost that was originally forecast. Four strategies helped achieve this. Internal efficiencies were found to cover the first three years of the eight years of costs. The OPS successfully lobbied the provincial government for funding for 74 of the sworn positions. Staffing was directed to areas that would help produce the most significant overtime and court time savings. Leftover capital funds were used to absorb some of the capital costs.

At the end of the program, the operating side of the SSI is expected to cost in the range of what was originally expected, $13.4 million. However, it has had a net impact on the budget of only $6.1 million as a result of all of the strategies mentioned. The additional capital funding needed was only $1.9 million, not $4.2 million as originally forecast. The message to staff during these budget years was that the SSI was the agency’s top priority and that some other issues would have to take a back seat.

Spin-off benefits were also important. A key SSI activity was the negotiation and implementation of a new platoon shift schedule that more closely matched staffing levels with calls for service. The new shift framework, launched in January 2004, positioned the OPS to better meet the daily and hourly demands for service. A shift scheduling expert helped with the analysis, and in-house staff members are now trained to use the data capture and modeling techniques to monitor and adjust as necessary. As the city grows and the pattern of calls for service increases or changes, the agency will have a more effective way to schedule additional personnel to meet this growth. The new shift framework also offers members a wider choice of shift arrangements, including fixed shifts, so that personal circumstances can be more easily managed. Employee feedback, including a formal survey and focus groups, demonstrated a marked improvement in employee satisfaction. In particular, responses regarding overall job satisfaction and the supportiveness of the environment were very positive. External numbers were equally impressive. Survey results from 2006 showed that overall public satisfaction with respect to quality of service had increased since 2002. Eighty-four percent of respondents expressed satisfaction with the quality of police service, representing a 12 percent increase in satisfaction ratings compared with 2002.

Without a doubt, the SSI was responsible for a cultural change within the organization. Project team members have often remarked that it was a rewarding and gratifying experience in which to be involved. The experience and knowledge gained by the project participants, as well as the formal project management methodologies used throughout the project, were communicated to the organization. This equipped the OPS with a pool of knowledge on how to apply supporting strategies and tools to execute other projects and initiatives successfully.

Improvements as a result of the SSI are maintainable and permanent for two main reasons. First, the initiative used a multifaceted approach to addressing the staffing issue. By developing a mechanism to identify staffing deficiencies; creating the policies, procedures, and supporting tools to help supervisory staff better manage staffing; developing staffing monitoring and recording mechanisms; providing training and support for managers and staff; and clearly communicating expectations throughout the organization, the OPS and its members are well positioned to continue reaping the benefits of improved staffing practices. Second, the SSI used formal project management methodologies throughout the life of the project to help ensure improvement processes were institutionalized. With a marked emphasis on documentation, policy development, training, monitoring, and evaluation, the SSI became a formal part of the agency’s approach to human resources management. In fact, the approach used in the SSI formed the basis of the OPS’s Strategic Growth Initiative 2013.

The success of the SSI is repeatable in other organizations. Other police services have requested information on the strategic staffing effort, and OPS representatives have been asked to make presentations or hold information sessions on the topic. For all who are considering such a program, there were several keys to success in this project. Project goals and objectives were established up front, and a project charter was developed as the foundation of the project. A formal project organization structure was created, and a draft work breakdown structure diagram helped provide participants with an understanding of the project’s scope and structure. A senior sworn officer was appointed to lead the initiative, providing positive optics across the organization as to the level of commitment to the project and encouraging support from the sworn community. Subject matter experts were brought in when needed. Reports were made to the board about the SSI’s progress on a semiannual basis, including results of annual budget submissions, helping put focus on the initiative. Constant emphasis was placed on the execution of the project—a challenge when dealing with a project of such extended duration. Steps were taken to identify and act on the need to launch companion projects such as outreach recruitment and workplace harassment and discrimination prevention to support the SSI and ensure its success. The chief’s endorsement and support for the initiative was made clear from the start, and strong support from senior management was demonstrated in numerous ways.


Adhering to the principles set out in the project charter, the SSI was completed within the planned time frame. Results often exceeded expectations. In short, the SSI project team developed a range of human resource management tools to ensure that the OPS was ready to forecast, monitor, and manage the 385 sworn officers and 59 civilians that were hired through the initiative, including hiring activities associated with the 168 retirements and resignations that took place. The organization saw an almost 12 percent increase in frontline active staffing levels and an expansion of about 20 percent in proactive policing activities. The ability to meet service levels in frontline call-taking functions expanded, and overtime and court costs decreased substantially, significantly affecting the bottom line. In fact, the SSI directly led to nearly $4 million in potential savings and provided the means to access $3.3 million in provincial funding for frontline officers. The net operating budget impact of the initiative was in the $6 million range. Its value becomes obvious when the budget is compared to the $13.4 million it would have cost without the SSI plan.

Overall, the SSI represented both innovation and significant organizational risk. Such an ambitious program had not been attempted by other Canadian police services. However, the program received much positive attention and praise from stakeholders. Productivity increased and staff members were better able to provide the best possible standard of service to the residents of the city of Ottawa. The SSI was one of the most aggressive and challenging projects ever undertaken by the OPS. In the end, it was as much about building a business case for funding as it was finding efficiencies. On both accounts, the OPS achieved its goals with resounding success, and it now has the processes, policies, resources, and tools in place to deal with temporary vacancies, attrition, existing gaps in police service, and new and emerging community needs and pressures resulting from growth in the community. In short, the OPS now has the right people at the right time to achieve its mission of working together for a safer community. ■

The success of the SSI is repeatable in other organizations. The OPS now has the right people at the right time to achieve its mission of working together for a safer community.


1Steering Committee for the Human Resources Study of Public Policing in Canada, Strategic Human Resources Analysis of Public Policing in Canada, for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Police Association, 3, (accessed December 3, 2008).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 1, January 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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