To mark this special milestone in the probation story, Joe Kuipers has produced a 'final' blog post, complete with some interesting confessions! As with others in the series, it's reproduced here in slightly edited form:-100 Years of Solitude and Back to the Future
Looking back to go forward?
I started as a probation officer back in 1972, and as a new graduate recruit to a seemingly old fashioned service was bemused at the total lack of consistency between what POs did and how we worked. SERs, as they were then, were a delightful mixture of descriptions, often running to 4 or 5 pages, including what might now be considered an estate agent snapshot of where the offender lived. Part As, Bs and Cs were variably completed, but on the whole the Part B (the assessment bit) was usually there if somewhat idiosyncratic. We all had at least half a secretary to do dictation or listen to the new invention of audio tapes, and very large caseloads, with my 90 odd ranging in age from 12 to 83. And we did Guardian at Litem work. My first SER was a bus journey to meet, at home, a serious GBH offender for the Crown Court. I still remember his name, and he never turned up at court in the 2 years I worked for the Birmingham Probation and After-Care Service. Oh, and we worked Saturdays, just half the day. TB screening was regular for me, linked as I was to the local crypt, as was a careful louse check.
But what we lacked in consistency of process was more than made up for by a collective and strong sense of 'mission' and belief in what we were hoping to achieve. The aspirations we had for 'our' offenders match those of today. That said, with a scientific and psychology background I could never really reconcile the great probation intentions with the lack of rigour, consistency of work and approach, variable theoretical operational bases, and absolute failure to 'measure' what we did.
Short cut to a bit later. As an ACPO in the then South East London Probation Service, which re-employed me through interview on 3 occasions after leaving each time to look after my increasing family, I introduced what became the local 'underground' map, 4 sides of colourful A4 as an A3 folded form, which detailed the key criminogenic features of the offender and 'riskiness', both at the point of sentence and at the end of their order or licence. This coincided with the introduction of computers at work (we piloted CRAMS, more fool us) and with some statistical background we were able to show whether we were being at all effective. Oh, this was 30 years ago.
Now for some quick confessions. When with HMI Probation, amongst many other things, I co-wrote the first and subsequent iterations of the National Standards. I initiated and led on the then approach to Internal Monitoring and Inspections (IMI), which included probation areas assessing each others PSRs, to achieve better consistency and focus. I undertook the Partnership Inspection which led to the requirement that a proportion of probation expenditure should go to other providers, believing as I did that probation could not do it all. My presentation on this to the NAPO conference did not go too well. I led on the Inspection into offender assessment, using the model of the PSR work, and the weaknesses and lack of consistency shown in offender and sentence planning and review led to OASys. And, yes, I coined the name. The prison service view of OASys at that time (as expressed by Michael Spurr, a governor on the OASys planning group); 'no thanks'.
But, I do not apologise for these and other developments as at the heart of 'doing good' there must be some consistency of approach (not least to address discrimination), mechanisms to be accountable to the tax payer and local communities, and some effort to demonstrate effect and impact. The great shame has been the absolute failure of IT and information systems to help staff with tools like OASys, and how they have been fiddled with.
So, why the title 'back to the future'? Well, my major theme is the future, and my greatest fear is that we are heading back to when and where I started, made even more complex by there now being the NPS and a number of CRCs. And, the CRCs will combine to create even bigger organisations with ever more anonymity, less support staff and less supervision for those on the front line. My evidence? For example, just have a look at the National Standards issued this week, a whole 3 days before ORA takes effect. Reading them will take less than 10 minutes. Perhaps I am wrong, but is there anything measurable in the new standards? In this respect I hope that those with contract management responsibilities will get the resource support to dig into service delivery. The headline target of 'reducing reoffending' is necessary, but there are a number of proxy measures and indicators that must be assessed too - progress is more linear, more up and down, than binary? NOMS and HMI Probation could do worse that be reminded of the IMI programme to create some consistency and transparency? Without attention to the quality dimension of probation work new risks will emerge, not least explaining SFOs to the public?
So, whither probation?
I can but hope it will be whither, rather than whether. There is the great saying, we are where we are (and not where we should be), and knowing that there is now no putting the clock back, well, not in my lifetime anyway, my efforts will go into assisting, where possible, to make the system of offender rehabilitation, community safety and public protection work as well as it might. In this respect I will work with NoOffence! and others, where possible, to encourage productive and constructive solutions to those few obstacles and problems that might just arise over the coming period. In deed, NoOffence! are planning a major conference later this year to enable lessons to be learned as TR moves forward. That will be at a time when there should be enough knowledge and experience across the probation sectors and those in the CJ environment (courts, PCCs, police, parole board, health, local authorities, etc) to use problem solving approaches and showcase successful initiatives.
Is this a change of heart on my part? Yes and no. 'No' insofar that I remain convinced that the new probation structures are a grave mistake by introducing major fragmentation and weaknesses in accountability; 'yes' in that we are now in a different place and I still have (well, I hope I have) many friends and colleagues working in probation, and, dare I say, in NOMS and the MoJ. It is especially those who remain working in probation who need support and solutions, so that is where effort needs to be placed.
So, what are the key issues for the future of community probation? There is currently a necessary focus on the 'priorities' with a hope to identify the critical 3, as encouraged by Russel Webster. However, there are more, and I am not sure you can have more than one priority, so I will call them 'issues for the future'. The consequential risks of not attending to these issues are pretty obvious, and I suspect that my issues list is not complete. Readers of my last blog will note that some of these issues were flagged up before.
- the space and skills for all relevant staff to develop meaningful relationships with offenders to effect change. It is quite clear that the nature of the relationship between probation staff, other providers and the offender is at the heart of achieving change and reducing risks. The combination of WHAT is done with offenders and WHO does this is the key to success; WHO is a powerful ingredient, not surprising as it is the nature of the relationship within which 'care and control' are exercised that forms the springboard to effective practice;
- ensuring and enabling consistent effective offender assessments which set out achievable 'rehabilitation and risk reduction plans' that are regularly reviewed. Yes, OK, a hobby horse, but stop riding this horse at your peril;
- tailored offender services. One size fits all is not the way to go, so I quite like the first starts to this by differentiating the offender cohort. However, the new risk is then to treat all those in that differentiated group to be the same, for example women offenders, or those with mental health or addiction difficulties;
- effective rehabilitation work in prisons, currently generally lacking, as a platform for community supervision. My good friend Jonathan Robinson has, quite rightly, much to say about this;
- providing good quality supervision to practitioners. There is evidence that practitioner support has suffered as managerial spans have increased. A supported workforce is a better workforce;
- consistent training for probation staff (NPS and CRCs), those working in the third sector and relevant others, and to use training to bring staff from a variety of setting together. This could be a bedrock of sharing good practice;
- achieving a balance between technical supervision (e.g. EM) and personal intervention;
- retaining and increasing the confidence of the courts by ensuring effective communication between the NPS and the courts. In this respect the quality of information provided to the courts must meet the expectations of the courts. There is a current debate about the need or value of PSRs and the prospect of their erosion. Speed is all well and good, but remember the PSR has a value as the primary offender assessment for probation providers (perhaps ever more critical with TTG), prisons and the Parole Board, so a narrow view presents new risks;
- retaining and increasing the confidence of the Parole Board by ensuring that those taking decisions about the release of prisoners feel they have excellent information to hand;
- ensuring effective communication between and within the various NPS 'regions' and the number of CRCs and within and between the various CRCs;
- ensuring effective communication between third sector providers in the delivery chain and the NPS and CRCs;
- making sure that smaller third sector providers do not have disproportionate risk delegated to them and that they are enabled to survive payment delays in the light of PbR;
- achieving a balance between the 'golden metwand of discretion' and consistency of practice, ensuring that what gets measured is also consistent across the business;
- ensuring a focus on service delivery quality, both internally by the relevant probation organisations and externally by HMI Probation and NOMS;
- business transparency by both the NPS and CRCs. I have argued previously that private sector businesses delivering public services should be subject to the same requirements and demands as if they were public sector bodies, including especially equality and freedom of information responsibilities;
- retaining community support for offender work placements, both for UPW and real jobs, in the light of some charities withdrawing from this arena;
- IT that works and that enables providers to 'talk' to each other;
- political intelligence which is at least a bit evidence based.
This is blog 41. Shame I shall not be here in another 100 years - for part of that time I shall have my own years of solitude. This is the last blog in this series. No doubt I may start a new series, especially if colleagues supply me with solutions to operational and strategic obstacles. In this series I have tried to be accurate (I have yet to be told that I have misled anyone), informative, and challenging. I have never intended to offend anyone, and apologise if unintentionally I have.
Should readers wish to let me know of success stories in making the new systems work do get in touch via my email, email@example.com
Wishing friends and colleagues strength and well-being; bon chance mes amis.
joe kuipers, 31 January 2015, a significant date in the probation calendar.