I've heard a lot recently about the '5 minute interview', otherwise known as the 'tick box interview' over on the Prisoners Families Voices website. I know exactly what they mean because I've seen it myself. A car pulls up outside the probation office, a guy gets out and he heads for reception and the friend keeps the engine running while he 'reports.' There is clearly no need to bother stopping the engine because just as quickly the guy reappears and is driven off.
A pointless exercise many would say and I have to agree. There's no wonder significant numbers of clients think it's a waste of time and don't turn up, thus triggering either breach or recall action. So, what's been going on, especially as it's long been known that it's the relationship between probation officer and client that is fundamental in effecting change in behaviour? Well by a handy coincidence, the explanation is contained in the latest edition of the newsletter for sentencers produced by the London Probation Trust and I'm grateful to a reader for passing it on to me. It's basically about one of the latest buz issues within the Service generally at the present time, and called 'engagement.'
"London Probation Trust is committed to improving the quality and effectiveness of service delivery, which also means improving our engagement with offenders. Over the past decade, there has been a national emphasis on achieving performance targets. Although it has been essential for probation to demonstrate our effectiveness against performance targets, this approach has resulted in some unintended consequences, in particular a lack of focus on how we engage and motivate offenders.
The renewed emphasis on offender engagement has been driven by a recognition by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), that although we may be "hitting the targets", we may also be "missing the point" - the point being that "the relationship between offenders and probation practitioners can be a powerful vehicle for changing behaviour and reducing reoffending." The NOMS Offender Engagement Programme (OEP) is a three year initiative working in collaboration with Probation Trusts to improve offender engagement. This fits seamlessly with the journey which we have already begun in London to rebalance our work and refocus on the quality of practice.
London Probation Trust is listening to the staff who deliver our frontline services and to the offenders who receive these services to ensure we understand how best to maximise our influence with offenders in order to reduce reoffending. We are delivering four pilot projects, two in conjunction with NOMS, which are aimed at improving the way in which we engage with offenders."
It's stuff like this that alternately makes me very angry and want to weep. Don't you just love the bit about there being some 'unintended consequences' of an approach that was based on targets? 'in particular a lack of focus on how we engage and motivate offenders.' If it wasn't so serious it would be funny I guess. A casual admission that an absolutely fundamental aspect of probation work was overlooked for the 'essential' business of measuring the effectiveness of probation against targets. The tragedy is that in undertaking this 'essential' business at the behest of NOMS, we lost the bloody plot.
"Hitting the target and missing the point." Oh dear! Of course some of us remained unimpressed by all the target-driven nonsense and have continued to operate according to well-tried and tested methods that include seeing people as-and-when-required and for as long as it feels necessary in order to try and achieve something. I've even been known to indulge in the heinous activity of seeing a client 'voluntarily.' In my experience, effort put into making interviews worthwhile often pay off in the form of clients repaying the courtesy by turning up.
It's quite a sobering thought to come to realise that what at one time was quite a dissident and reactionary activity, is now at the cutting edge of probation practice. Sadly I think it might all be too late though as the damage has been done. Just as we could do with some public support, websites like Prisoners Families Voices are full of very negative stuff. Anyway, the London Probation Trust goes on to trumpet some of their new initiatives:-
Skills for Effective Engagement and Development (SEED)
"This project is a 12-month pilot sponsored by NOMS currently on trial in Barking, Dagenham & Havering, and Merton & Sutton. The SEED programme focuses on training practitioners and their line managers in effective engagement skills and techniques. Practice is embedded through continuous professional development including quarterly follow up training, observation and feedback from line managers and monthly practitioner-led action learning sets.
SEED draws upon the Strategic Training Initiative in Community Supervision (STICS) research from Canada which demonstrated a statistically significant reduction in reoffending by offenders whose supervising officers had been specifically trained in engagement skills. SEED is providing a real opportunity for the Trust to refocus on "what happens in the room" in terms of the offender-practitioner relationship and practice skills, including a unique professional development experience. It will be externally evaluated by Sheffield University."
How about that?! Training probation officers in engagement skills AND wanting 'to know what goes on in the room?!!'
I can feel one of my heads coming on and need to lie down.