Reluctantly retired member speaks out against the new world of the CRC
Handing my resignation letter to the CEO was a strange experience: a mixture of heartfelt regret with an eagerness to simply get out from my CRC. In the weeks leading up to this, a couple of my friends were worried I’d made a big mistake and were asking questions….
“Why would you do such a thing? You haven’t been made redundant, you haven’t taken a payoff and you even made it through the restructure – so why would you resign?”.These were all good questions to ask and, to be honest, they were the kind of difficult questions only a true friend would have the courage to ask. So here’s a few thoughts on why I threw in my probation career.
“You mean you’ve quit your job and you’ve taken a lower paid job somewhere else…. are you mad?”
Perhaps like many other colleagues in the Criminal Justice System, I remember my early years in Probation during the 1990s; I grew and matured on the What Works philosophy. This really made an indelible impression on me and it made so much sense i.e. you do what is proven to work and in the right way. Nowadays that all seems to be forgotten, evidence-based practice seems less important and the spectre of privatisation has wrecked the Probation Service. Despite this, you may wonder why I would leave. After all, with over twenty years service paying into the LGPS and of early retirement age, you’d think I ought to stay a while longer….
Let’s go back in time, to those 1990s and What Works. Comparisons were made with the medical profession in providing treatments and medications in the right dose, according to what is needed to treat a person’s condition. During those years staff room conversations were all about evidence based practice, programme integrity, change control and the like. Home grown group work programmes were replaced by Accredited programmes, underpinned by research to prove their effectiveness. Considerable skills were demanded in making sure the right people attended the right programmes and this was informed and supported by the right OGRS scores. Hazel Kemshall’s diagrams were on notice boards, loads of colleagues enthusiastically attended Maguire & Priestly based training and this whole movement shaped Probation practice in those days and well into the new century. Sure, it wasn’t perfect but everyone agreed the principle made complete sense.
While the What Works strictness and rigour were occasionally seen as restrictive and ruled out a certain professional judgement, there was a compelling case for the approach. Arguably it was simply a case of using the What Works principles and applying it in a common sense approach, recognising this may need a little time to work through the system and the very individual culture of Probation. What Works went further into other areas of Probation practice and even saw the rise of regional What Works Managers at lofty ACO salary levels. It all seemed to make sense and some great work was done.
Sure, the What Works mindset has evolved; we have a greater emphasis on professional judgement, a less automated sentence plan and a sense of on-going commitment to many of the What Works principles. A classic example could be Integrated Offender Management. While IOM may allow some greater flexibility from case to case, it is supported by the principle of aligning intensive resources with those who commit a disproportionate number of offences and have a higher level of need.
Roll forward to 2016 and we see the new Transforming Rehabilitation agenda bedding in and the true horrors becoming apparent. You wonder if the whole world has gone crazy. The What Works research has largely flown out of the window and replaced by something else. This “something else” is little more than an eloquently worded fag packet design, or possibly of the “back of used envelop” variety. CRCs have been established and sold off to owners who, in my experience, persuaded the Ministry of Justice to let contracts whereby all kinds of unproven work would be carried out right across England and Wales. Naturally it was Chris Grayling, former Justice Secretary who was driving the change and, it seemed, civil servants had been sucked into this new mindset and were tasked with the job of rushing the reforms through. I remember seeing how each of the civil servants I knew, one by one, were outwardly brainwashed into obediently doing their own part to see the TR plans take shape.
I was utterly dismayed at how convincing the new owners thought they were. Frequently the new owners reminded us that many of their high level folk had grown up in Probation and apparently “seen the light”. Did that make it all okay then? Absolutely not.
It was frightening how flimsy plans and ideas were foisted onto my CRC and we were simply told to “get on with it” and implement the new working model. Office moves were planned and filled with delays and snags, IT delays were always predictable and gradually the new owners were changing from their initial introductory words of “light touch management” through to having complete control of the CRC. You might question the point in having a CEO at all. In fact I remember having a good measure of sympathy for the CEO (who was a very decent colleague) and yet gradually having any power or authority down graded to the point of becoming a figurehead only.
Change within? Nah….
I remember thinking amidst all the madness, whether I should dig my heels in and become a thorn in the side of the TR changes. My modus operandi was to be a persuader, not a dissident or an outright rebel. I tried to question things, to point the new owners to What Works, the merits of pilots and controlled reform. I even remember when the Right Honourable Kenneth Clarke MP was Justice Secretary and his approach. Clarke knew reforms were necessary and there were few who would disagree. The Clarke approach was to try a few new ideas out i.e. pilot projects. While some aspects of the Payment by Results approach may have been dubious, there was at least an opportunity to start trying a few ideas out. Alas all of that was swept aside as a result of the Ministry of Justice – v – No 10 tensions, where Clarke lost out in a reshuffle and Grayling was shuffled in.
Changing direction did not seem to be much of a goer. Many colleagues escaped through a lucrative EVR settlement and others through subsequent redundancies and resignations. The new owners had a firm grip of my CRC and the initial “light touch” was replaced by a wholesale reorganisation which, in my view, could only result in disaster. Even the Ministry of Justice’s contract management staff could see the results of the changes going badly wrong and one can only hope they have the balls to recommend the contract is revoked and the CRC brought back into public hands for some rehabilitation.
And so that’s why I left. Nowadays I question whether I have been unfaithful to those years in Probation which started as a calling, a vocation. I question whether it was right to abandon many colleagues who remain and who are dismayed at the effect of TR. Yet, I know I must move on, albeit with a heavy heart and no pay-off.
....but you have missed the 'old days' when we did have fun, and laughed with each other at work and had frequent team nights out, knocking back the beer, the odd vintage wine and even pina coladas.... Now the ramshackle workplaces are so soulless, with people desperately trying to keep up the workload of so many other staff who have left, (in the mad world of deafening office noise, or no office at all). They have no time or energy to have decent pressie collections, and great leaving do's, as every time someone leaves, that's someone else's case load rising.
We all need to conserve as much energy as possible to survive the tremendous changes happening in the Probation world. I work for a CRC and feel as if the whole organisation is perched on the edge of a cliff - the operating model is due to be published and the tension is palpable. Having worked through so many changes in 20 years in Probation, this is definitely going to be the most far-reaching in terms of changes in organisational culture and identity. Staff are worried, nervous, anxious, angry, complacent and in denial. Turning up for work on a Monday morning and surviving the working week from one weekend to the next is an important goal for survival. Maybe things will turn out better than anticipated. Who knows? At least we have a job which pays the mortgage and feeds our children.
*This valedictory lecture will explore the future(s) of probation seeking to adjust to the new criminal justice landscape of austerity, plurality in delivery and the consequential loss of direction and purpose for many probation practitioners and managers. This will be Professor Senior's last contribution as a member of Sheffield Hallam University as he will retire from the university after 34 years at this lecture. The lecture will launch a special issue of the British Journal of Community Justice, his last as editor, which will include contributions from leading probation thinkers in the field who will reflect on the future for probation. This will be an important volume and will be available and launched at the lecture. Professor Senior has always been a trenchant defender of probation as an institution and continues to argue for the maintenance of probation as a profession. The lecture will challenge our thinking and will be delivered in a characteristic robust and entertaining manner.