Monday, 8 December 2014

Guest Blog 13

A vision of a Participatory Probation co-operative or an alternative to TR

I will start with revolution and end with probation. In its simplest form arguments on the left of politics have seen two principle classes driving history forward; an “Owning Class” that exploits the “Working Class”. Recently Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have argued that a key third class exists with an equally pivotal role in making history. They named this class the "Coordinating Class". 

In reality the Coordinator Class are the managers. They are a tier of people who manage their work and the work of others: CEOs, bankers, big lawyers, and politicians at the top level, but managers in the public sector and in the new Third Sector are part of the Coordinator Class. They are the go-betweens for the capitalists and the workers and they have an overwhelming monopoly over empowering work. What they say goes, or you are out on your ear. They are managers of themselves and others. They develop their own economic interests; they compete with workers and one another to continue to hold onto a disproportionate share of empowering/interesting work. Okay that’s the end of the theory bit, lets move on to the Revolution.

In the case of the Russian Revolution, the original Soviets were set up to be open and democratic, to be run by the workers for the workers; full participation of all was to be the basis of the first Soviets. However, as time went on the managers/coordinators started to make the majority of the major/empowering decisions and as always, they made more and more decisions in their own interests and ultimately the Revolution was corrupted. The coordinators became a power elite and the democratic essence of the first Soviets was crushed; in the end this class of managers led to the purges and the death of millions.

The above is an example of the old adage that power corrupts all who hold it and it is part of the narrative that nothing can be done to stop people from being corrupted and nothing can stop the powerful. Indeed in the Probation Service we have our own examples of corruption and power and we have our very own class of coordinators. I’m sure that former NAPO leaders came into post with the best of intentions, but over time they were corrupted by power and started to serve their own interests, the rest is our history.

So if power corrupts is it possible to create a democratic participatory Probation Cooperative?

If a few people hold the decision making powers in any organisation, how can we stop the bastards from turning into a power elite or from serving the existing elite? Probation management is a good example of this phenomenon. Without question we have witnessed probation management doing the bidding of those in the MoJ and NOMS who are driven by a mix of what is know as managerialism and neoliberalism, ideologies that argue that managers and the markets know best. The mantra trotted out on every occasion is that the state is bad and the market is king and if it is said often enough it is accepted. The mantra is taken to heart by the greasy pole climbers when all the evidence from the privatised sections of the state (Transport, Utilities, Banks, education, NHS, the Post Office and all forms of Community Care) is that it is an unmitigated disaster, but the fools press on.

The first thing we need to do in order to create our Probation Cooperative is to dispose of the managers because we know they have been or soon will be corrupted. So who will do the managing you may ask and the answer is we will. We know we can’t ask Jim, Joanna, Netnipper and their mates to make the decisions because in the end they too will turn into lying ruthless bastards. No, Albert and Hahnel argue that Power must be rotated continually. This is the only way to stop the corrupting process. 

Many will say this is idealist clap-trap, you need managers to free others from the bureaucracy, or they may say that many people will not make good managers. To this I say that one hundred years ago all doctors were male; today over fifty per cent and increasing are female. In the Probation Service and in society at large, we share very similar abilities and given the chance most of us could do most jobs. Indeed eighty per cent of the working class would make good or excellent brain surgeons. They don’t because they don't get the chance, not because they do not have the ability and as Probation staff we know this.

The rotation of power can be achieved by limiting the time any person can be  part of the decision making body of the cooperative or better, by all people making the decisions together. Fridays could be set out as a time for debate and voting or the last three days in the month could or the last three weeks in the year, there are endless combinations. The  fully participating membership would decide; real democracy, because this is what we are talking about. It isn’t easy, we will have to work at it, but it's got to be better than what we have now.

Democracy at work means we all have a voice in how and what we do in the workplace. Democracy at work means the end of hierarchical structures, to be replaced by horizontal that are by dint democratic structures and processes. However, to be truly democratic, the probation cooperative would need to be fully participatory. What I mean by this is that each person would need to as involved in the organisation as much as he/she can possibly be. Hierarchy would be replaced by community and fear of the boss by support for our fellow workers. The Probation Service would be a perfect pilot for such an organisation, ether as a cooperative or within the Public Sector. We know that cognitively  probation staff are similar and we know from the last fifteen years that we would be able to rotate most tasks with ease. PSOs become POs and clerical staff become PSOs and Probation Officers and all of us can undertake management tasks with little effort. By sharing and rotating decision making, we keep hierarchy and corruption at bay.

Albert and Hahnel go on to talk about “Shared Job Complexes”. What they mean by this is that each persons job should be a mix of good and not so good tasks and we do this all the time in Probation. Each of us would have turns: “acting up” and cleaning the bog, writing reports, court duty, home visits and so on. There would be no hierarchical division of labour, no SPOs clerical workers or Probation Officers, importantly we would decide how its done in the workplace. Nothing would be foisted on us by the brutes at NOMS or the MoJ, this is why I think this type of working lends itself better to a cooperative organisation rather than the Public Sector. However, it could work in the Public Sector if they gave us enough freedom, but that ain't going to happen anytime soon.

We will all have to do the horrible parts of the job too, telling people that they need to improve certain skills or put a little more effort into the job. This would be achieved in solidarity and with genuine support not via fear or greasy pole climbing. Because we all share the same tasks, we will be much better placed than current management to see who is not pulling their weight or when someone needs more support.

Remuneration in a Probation Cooperative could be set this way. Workers who work longer or harder or at more onerous conditions (cleaning the toilet, working with difficult clients) would earn proportionally more for doing so. And others who wanted to work part time or do less onerous tasks would be paid less. Again we the members would decide exactly how.

There are millions of people currently employed in varying forms of cooperatives: over eighty thousand work in Mondragon in Spain, thousands work in cooperative movement in the UK and thousands are employed in radical cooperatives in South America. Perhaps it's an idea whose time has come. 

On a personal note and I need to be a little coy here lest I blow my cover, in my place of work we have had little management input for six years and three of us have had a free hand in designing the work we do and we have had much success. So much so that a report has been written on our model of work and it was suggested that others in the area should adopt it. However, when Grayling entered the fray, that was the end of that. 

The three people involved had different ideas of how to work, but because no one was senior to the other, the way we worked was borne out consensus. There was no power imbalance, we all had an equal say in decision making; the way we worked developed organically because we had no managers dictating the way it must be done in order to feather their own nests or doing the bidding of their ideologically driven “betters”. The work we did developed from the needs of the people we worked with and from the bottom up. Indeed, the men were interviewed when the report was written on our “model” and they were fully supportive of our methods. It was “Effective Practice” in action.

Finally, I think working in this horizontal participatory way has implications for unions. Horizontalism and full participation necessitates that the hierarchical structures of unions are reduced. People fully involved in their work will simply be more aware and will want to have a greater say in the political direction of their union. I think people would want to be more involved in union activities and we would vote for more time to discuss and vote on issues. Again this could be done on every Friday afternoon each week and if there was some sort of higher decision making body needed we would not send Jim, or Netnipper every time because we know how corrupt they can be. No, we would mix it up to stop power coalescing in a stinking, putrid elite.

We need to break out of the dominant narrative of TINA (there is no alternative). There are millions of ways to organise work, most of them better than the nightmare we currently toil under - TR my arse.



  1. Papa you have some interesting ideas, though I doubt that the proportion of any group of people who would make good or excellent brain surgeons is as high as 80%, all thoughts of class aside!

    I would love to see these ideas in practice in probation work - I know a couple of people who are part of a worker's collective in the city where I work, delivering training and mediation services, and it sounds like an excellent model. I wonder what would have happened if a genuinely mutual organisation like you describe (and not just a bunch of senior managers like we have now) had been able to bid for CRCs. Sadly this Government's commitment to so-called mutuals isn't even paper-thin - it's about getting things off the state's balance sheet.

  2. This chimes for me with a programme broadcast last week
    Teaching Economics After the Crash
    and this short and very readable piece "Mainstream Misconceptions", by Dr Terry Peach
    My first reaction (speaking as a recently departed corrupt and filthy manager type) was to dismiss this piece as idealistic and impractical, and I do have doubts about the practicality of running large organisations in a cooperative manner, although I think it is powerful in small scale. Where do tasks demanding different skills (eg IT) fit? But more importantly, there is an urgent need to explore alternatives to the way we run the economy, government and society. Thank you for this contribution! The endless assertion that There Is No Alternative, smacks to me of repeating the same behavior and expecting different results

  3. Interesting, but there's a problem straight away. How do you get the power off of the stupid and the corrupt in the first place? These people and their political pisspots are getting worse as time goes on. how DO we de-power them??

  4. Su this can be scaled up, in Mondragon they make cars and other technical stuff.

    My ideas come from IOPS the "International Organisation for a Participatory Society". They can be used when some say" there is no alternative to capitalism" and we might need them sooner than many think.


  5. Thank you for your blog, Papa. Someone I know had the same experience as you in the teaching profession, without managerial interference, and it was a complete success and everyone was much happier and worked better.

    I used to be in the Socialist Party, but ironically, it was the most intolerant organisation I have ever joined. Once I wrote a letter to the Guardian, with one line in it saying how Labour were constrained by corporations, and was accused of being an apologist for Labour! They also said that, after the revolution, there would be no need for a police force or prisons. I'm not sure about that - I think we would need a prison for all the cabinet.

    However, I agree with everything you say and power needs to be rotated, and we should start with the Probation Service. We need to deal with the huge corporations first though, before this would ever happen and, as you say, reform the unions. I have often wondered what would happen if I had power and now I know - I'd turn into a lying ruthless bastard! Thanks for warning me.

    1. Perhaps having power in the sense that many take it only corrupts those already inherently corrupted. The perspective is that of those who built towers of bricks as children their interest being to knock it down. There is a difference between these and true leaders,those whom others respect and feel safe to take their guidance, for whom people will stand and shoulder the responsibility together ,each in their own way and to the best of their ability. There are people and companies who have removed the notions of Chief, Senior , top down, drilling down etc etc. true leaders have no need for such nonsense. Weak insecure people seek the predominant power, commonly they are also the bullies.and those who relish being able to punish others..

    2. A very interesting piece Papa and I'm only sorry it didn't get more attention due to the news coming in about Napo abandoning the legal challenge to JR.

      The only thing I would like to throw into the mix is something I picked up from my many years as a Samaritan volunteer and I think would be a valuable innovation to any organisation, but especially probation.

      In the Samaritans it is an absolute rule that however high up the greasy pole of management one climbs, every single person must undertake regular weekly duties on the telephone and importantly be supervised by the Team Leader responsible for that shift. Hence, as a lowly Branch Team Leader, I regularly used to supervise the National Chairman.

      In terms of egalitarianism, delegation, flat heirarchies, shared responsibility etc etc, my experiences in the Sams taught me a lot and made me laugh out loud when years later the Chief instructed all managers to undertake a number of PSR's - the howls of complaint were truly enlightening....

  6. Mark Haddon's piece in The Guardian today on the book ban is very good, especially about the failure of this government to think - at all, seemingly - about the impact of their policies.

    Health warning - this article includes a close-up picture of Grayling looking thoughtful...

  7. can anyone accessthis

  8. Of course you are right about the inequalities of opportunity and the vested powers. A working model based on cooperative principles would require massive economic and cultural shifts. It is idealistic, but then everything begins with an idea. Neoliberalism started out as a postwar reaction to fascism and communism and other forms of tyranny. It, too, was concerned with counteracting concentrations and abuses of power. But shrink the state too much and you end up with a failing state. In the UK, one of the wealthiest countries, it is accepted across the political spectrum that hunger, once again, stalks the land.

    I don't like overarching ideologies whose adherents believe what they are promoting is for the public good. There is a need for a counterweight to free enterprise and competition and a need for more recognition of what cooperative-based models can offer, in terms of job satisfaction and other rewards. It can work in some settings within limits.

    Rotating roles and responsibilities as a means of countering the emergence of power elites is a high ambition. It would depend upon widespread rational adherence to cooperation. But isn't life an interplay between competitive and cooperative forces. These forces work harmoniously in the moral-free animal kingdom, but it's all fairly dysfunctional in the human realm, whose inhabitants are collectively imperiling the planet through their destructive behaviour.

    We may not like hierarchies but they have been around a long time and arguably are an inherent feature of the human condition. Any cooperative has to deal with individual differences of talent and motivation. There are limits to interchangeability of roles. How far could you stretch the rotation principle? To a football team? Would you want the groundsman swapping roles with Messi while he mowed the grass. 'To each according to his talent to each according to his need' – but how to achieve this in a manner that is fair and equitable.

    In a democratic system you can flatten elites and hierarchies to a degree and through checks and balances you can dilute and diffuse power and weaken vested interests. It's been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others – and you could say the same about capitalism in respect of economics. In terms of economic inequalities we are going backwards. It would be good to see more mutuals and cooperatives and a sharing of profits. It would be good to see people in jobs that paid a living wage rather than rely on state subsidies. The free market, ironically, depends on the state for its survival.

  9. I'm not sure I completely understand but I don't think the Judicial Review is going ahead this week according to the latest Napo mailout. Napo seem to have settled and Grayling has agreed to make safety changes. Am I right? Is it all over and have we no chance of stopping the privatisation?


  11. Bit like the Sale of Goods Act – the JR has improved the merchantable quality of the goods for sale – but the sale goes ahead. It's a victory for Grayling.

  12. Despite holding out little hope that JR would fully succeed it at least showed a fight to the end! This feels like a sell out! Like making a deal with the devil! I just feel like crying in fact a colleague was so upset at the news she just walked out. Once again thanks for nothing NAPO.

  13. Great stuff Papa - you seem to have missed out training - there is a significant difference in the understanding and skills of a trained well supervised & experienced social worker/probation officer and one who is merely experienced and does not have access to academic information and understanding.

    However, now is not the time to pursue this though the fact that it is offered now maybe providential as we need to consider that just because something has operated in one way it should be the same for ever more.

    Nothing would justify splitting probation at the local level and so the model designed by the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in Government means Probation as now organ9ised will remain more dangerous than necessary however it is funded.

    I see from a headline George Monbiot has offered a piece about alternative methods of a state operating, but I have yet to read it.

    I shall save that until another time as I need to reflect on whether there is anything I can do that might be effective to prevent or delay the signing if those CRC contracts as I hope EVERY Napo, Unison and GMB member is doing.

    I doubt there is enough time to call an extraordinary General Meeting of Napo but the Officers Group and NEC members and especially the Communications committee need to find a way of quickly gathering all views and distilling them to discover what might yet be feasible. Now is not the time to surrender probation CRC work to the privateers making reunification more difficult than if it remains in the public sector.