Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Debate Goes On

Following on from yesterday's post about how things looked from the client's perspective, my attention has been drawn to a recent post 'To Save or Not to Save (Probation)' by Raymond Lunn on the subject and writing from his perspective as a former client:-

My position at this moment in time is clear, I don’t want probation to be ‘sold off’. I don’t want the practices of public safety and the rehabilitation of offenders to be sold to private enterprise. The risks are great. The future for desisters from crime is they become commodities for very powerful conglomerates and unscrupulous profit makers.

However, my questions to current probationers have brought me to consider the options, or at least to try and discover what probationers think and what does the public think are the options, and what are they prepared to try. Early revelations reveal a disdain for probation practices and a certain level of mistrust from the probationer towards the probation officer. My experience becomes irrelevant to the discussion because the practices have changed so dramatically since my last experience of probation in 1995/6. Although my engagement now no longer a probationer and someone who is at least trying to engage has become not indifferent to those who mistrust the service.
One person said, “Probation are not interested in me, they just tick boxes.” Do probation just tick boxes – do probation actually have a vested interest in ‘rehabilitation’?  You would think that was a stupid question. However, according to just about everybody I’ve spoken too, said they don’t get the help, support and assistance required for them to desist from crime.
It's clear that Raymond's experience of probation has been positive, but he acknowledges that was some time ago and probably before the stifling effect of National Standards took hold, especially amongst newer recruits to the Service. I admire his determination to seek out the users voice and it will be interesting to see what his street research in Leeds produces.  
In another blog re-published on Guerilla Policy, Jon Harvey describes how he's been taking on Russell Webster over the whole business of Payment by Results and particularly it's effect on innovation:- 
This morning, I began a small twitter debate with a blogger I have huge respect for: Russell Webster ‏(@russwebt) We have been discussing the pros and cons of Payment by Results (I have linked this to Russell's blog as it provides an excellent starter for ten). Russel said that he is pro PbR (but with questions). I asked him why. He said that it was because the "principles are right: outcome-focus, space for innovation. Would rather see reinvestment not profit as incentive + contract retention as provider incentive" and when I quizzed him further, he said an "outcome focus strips out bureaucracy. Very little innovation in public services over last 20 years (apart from pilots)". 


I am going to let go the throw away line of "very little innovation in public services over last 20 years" since I think there has been much. But let's not debate that at the moment. 

Let's debate instead what I see as Russell's fundamental point which is that money or threat of contract termination are the best ways of getting innovation into the public services. I profoundly disagree. I would argue that in fact it is this neo-liberal perspective and policies that have closed down innovation and improvement in the public services.

Now, as my story above partly accepts, innovation does come from a threat to survival. This comes from our mortality... which for me includes our humanity and our love of the world and the people within it. In my view, the atomisation, and commodification of the public services has all but destroyed the true source of public service innovation: the deep desire to make this world a better place for the many not just the moneyed few.

I think what has stopped innovation from bursting out in more places in the public services is not the absence of financial incentives provided by the likes of PbR and other neo-liberal commercial models being shoe horned into the public services (by some politicians and consultancies like McKinsey and others) - but their presence, their dominance even. 

Instead, what we need now is the progressive vision, political leadership and the concomitant policies for public services to be based on that simple principle of... public service! 

Now what chance have we got of 'progressive vision'? Zilch unfortunately.                                      


  1. Probation is I have to admit a very different animal then it was in 95/96. I do think however that it is still far more suited to rehabilitation, assistance, supervision and public protection then anything that PbR and the private sector can provide.
    On the question of innovation? I'd have to agree that PbR creates great capacity for innovation.
    You only have to look at the millions that was swindled by A4e subcontractors in the work programme and G4S billing for recalled and dead clients to see just how innovative PbR really is.
    No doubt such innovative practices will also be present in the TR model.

  2. Interesting article in yesterdays Huddersfield Daily Examiner regarding W Yorkshires drive to involve the voluntery sector in probation work.

  3. MITIE, another dodgey outfit, who may or may not have design on getting its fingers in the TR pie have announced that its aquired UKCRBs.
    Outsourcing is now becoming a viral concern.

  4. Innovation in the private sector will always be focused on the improvement of profit margins and financial gain and not concerned with social issues, social mobillity or the advancement of humanity.
    Putting all our public services into private markets directs innovation in a very particular way, soley focused on wealth creation.
    Public sector services provide a balance to this, and innovative focus is directed to'wards social interests.
    We all want some wealth, but not at the cost of losing our social ethics and responsibilities.
    We must retain some balance between public and private sectors.

  5. Netnipper: I am most definitely on Jon Harvey's side of the argument, not least because his language is humanised as opposed to cybernetic outcome-focused management speak. I can understand PbR in the context of sporting and other contests, but I will never understand how it can ever be meaningfully applied to reoffending rates.

    As for the client experience, it has changed significantly since the mid-nineties. One of my reservations when it comes to saving probation, is what exactly is being saved? What is the difference in management behaviour between some probation trusts and private companies? I see few differences as for years now the former has been aping the latter. Public probation are going to screw their staff with as much energy as the private or third sector. It is no wonder that the probation experience has become a more oppressive one for clients, as that is exactly what it has become for staff.

    In the mid-nineties probation was also dealing with a higher-risk probation population; it was later that it started to suck in lots of first offenders to 'treat' them. The other thing I remember about the mid-nineties is that far from being inward looking and chained to desktops, probation was forever networking with voluntary agencies in all those fields that could potentially assist with the rehabilitation and resettlement of clients. So, I think the mere assertion that PbR innovates may be true, but the actual evidence shows that historically public probation was good at innovation.

    1. Well put. I was thinking the same things.

  6. More bad news for G4S today on the 'Stop G4S' website.
    I know it's not an attractive quality, but I take great pleasure in their misfortunes.

  7. Jim,

    One particularly 'enriching set of experiences( aside from dodgy comics & calorific overload!) which seems to have completely faded from the probation back catalogue .. was the yearly Lakes Conferences organised with consummate passion by the late and greatly lamented Napo activist Brian Hampson... innovative practice was regularly paraded and shared... recall veteran PO Bron Roberts working with denial with Sex Offenders.( alongside the late Ray Wyre).. I do hope that Jill Anniston who is collating Napo archives will unearth some of this hidden history & refute some of the sillier obiter dicta that Probation and innovative practice do not mix... I certainly concur with Netnipper's succinct analysis of recent trends ... ps I also attended the now defunct Otterburn Conference... another trove of innovative probation practice...I could go on! keep up the fight...



    1. Mike,

      Good to hear from you. Do you know I never got to a Lakes Conference or ever remember chatting to someone who did, which says a lot about the sheltered backwater my career has been conducted in. I guess the closest I got were Regional Staff Development courses at the seaside which were famous for the quality of contributors and the late night drinking. Such events were eventually ruled out by the accountants of course, but the training aspects were second to none and will never match a day at Head Office with a cascade trainer.

  8. In recent weeks I have had to grind to a halt with mind-numbing OASys-R and then the shambles of N-Delerious. These great crap systems are unfortunately the argument for change in Probation. De-centralise the whole lot of it and give it to the Trusts with the allowance that they can at last innovate. It's these terrible national constraints - score cards and all - that stifle innovation.

    1. Probation has not been well-served with IT systems and OASys-R and N-Delerious are truely dreadful and as I've said many times before, seriously reduce our productivity.

  9. I would like to think that I can straddle the new stuff, eg i.t. systems, because for a multitude of reasons, it's necessary, and still have a meaningful relationship with those I supervise. There is a danger in thinking 'PROBATION' as opposed to keeping our focus on people. I enjoyed references to those past colleagues who really left their mark and made a difference, but most of us do, to some degree. It's me, '30 years in' and I still go off script, but I also try to ensure I cover all bases, before embarking on the life changing stuff. If I didn't think it worthwhile, and exciting I would have left a long time ago.......there is still a lot of passion, innovation and gutsy people in the service, we just need to encourage and allow them to blossom.

    1. Good to hear, especially that you still go 'off script'. I don't think you can be a good officer if you don't to be honest - the problem has been encouraging newer colleagues in my experience.