Sunday, 12 June 2016

Fears and Hopes

The latest edition of the British Journal of Community Justice is extremely important for a number of reasons, but most particularly because it seeks to address the fundamental question of whether probation has a future. The last to be co-edited by Prof Paul Senior and although available in it's entirety online, it's probably one of those publications that probation 'lifers' would wish to buy and keep. 

For anyone with the slightest interest in our profession, how it's got to the current state and what might lie ahead, this publication really is worth reading from cover to cover and in order to encourage this I have taken the liberty of offering a taster in the form of an article abstract, together with complete article by Paul Senior.        


Paul Senior & Dave Ward, with Lol Burke, Charlotte Knight, Michael Teague, Tim Chapman, Jane Dominey, Jake Philips, Anne Worrall and Anthony Goodman 


At the 'conversation with Paul Senior' event in January 2016 at Kendal the group had to go back to first principles to test out a basic proposition - whether probation, however it is defined, has a place in 21st century responses to crime and any societal attempts to rehabilitate, reform, reintegrate and/or restore offenders back into communities. If we could agree the core principles of what constitutes 'probation' and also understand and articulate the boundary issues, would most societies driven by human rights and equality of opportunity for all its citizens inevitably seek to create some form of probation? This was the proposition. This has been seen to happen for instance in recent years in Eastern Europe where the limitations of a penal system based just on imprisonment has led to the creation of services in the community akin to probation. Or is an opposite proposition equally possible that there is nothing universal about probation and we are seeing its death knell in the UK? The changes wrought by Transforming Rehabilitation have suggested that the very future of probation is at risk. Commentators have talked about the death knell of probation (Senior, 2014); questions of legitimacy attendant upon privatisation (Deering & Feilzer, 2015); or the most radical change since it was introduced a little over a century ago (Newburn, 2013). This is the core question at the heart of this paper, is there a future for probation and, if so, what defines its essence?


Paul Senior, Professor of Probation Studies, Sheffield Hallam University

Is this an unlikely scenario, circa 2011? 
Government hiring a consultant in organisational and personnel management and challenging them to:
“Map out a way of changing the entire organisational matrix of probation. This is your brief: 
  • Undo the governance arrangements completely and create a bifurcated and multiple ownership model using a range of companies with no experience of running probation services 
  • As it worked so badly in 2001 when 17 chiefs were retired at a stroke losing the leadership skills of a service at a time when a new national organisation was created, repeat this tragedy as farce in 2014 so aim at, at least, 13 CEOs leaving the Trusts as the new organisations are created thus decimating leadership 
  • Create new arrangements which will downgrade the skills of its workforce, create confusion over what is required to be a probation practitioner and then squeeze funds to the extent that redundancy, low morale and sickness escalates and the core of probation, its workers, are decimated, set against each other and disillusioned.” 
And yet this is just what has unfolded in the most farcical episode in probations' rich, if turbulent, history of organisational change. The changes initiated by Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) are maybe more disruptive than previous changes but there have been plenty of changes since the steady state of 1970s and 1980s. For most of the last forty years, probation has been a local public service managed via a variety of Probation Committees (magistrates initially as the employers) and then Boards with a changing relationship with its courts, local authorities, the region and the centre.

At one time the local authority also contributed to part of its budget, though the extent of local oversight was limited as direction has always come from the centre. This gathered pace when probation was projected ‘centre stage’ in the early 1990s and a more managed service was required. Boards became more diversified to include representatives from business and finance and the occasional academic. However, the funding requirements, controlled by the centre, ensured increasing compliance to central direction, ultimately increasing such control so that a National Probation Service was created in 2001. It was an opportunity for influence and recognition for the distinctive work of the probation service but which ultimately failed. A closer relationship with a more dominant partner, the prison service, a succession of lack lustre national leaderships plus a submissive attitude to the demands of government saw probation drift from its core ideals to a weak and divided organisational arrangement lacking rationale, connectedness and a sense of direction. 

The 2001 version of the NPS did not last and another organisational shift brought Probation Trusts, increased local engagement through Local Criminal Justice Boards and Community Safety Partnerships, regional bodies and enhanced working partnerships with the police and with the third sector. As we reached 2012 the Trusts were regarded, by the government's own measures, as in good health and had become the first public organisation to be awarded the ultimate business kitemark, the British Quality Foundation’s 2011 Gold Medal for Excellence Award. 

Now just four years later we have governance models which are predicated on survival and ensuring the new Community Rehabilitation Companies at least break even. Many of the CEOs who started the CRCs before ownership was transferred to a strange band of catering, workfare, cleaning and security companies have now gone or been superseded by senior managers from the owners. There is no continuity between the different providers and less and less organic links with the new National Probation Service despite originally sharing buildings and having a common IT language. Now many models prevail and communication has become difficult. 

Leadership is a difficult issue to get right. Too often the balance between management and leadership is blurred. In 2001 there was a strong move to centralise probation policy and practice and make all local areas dance to a new choreography (National Probation Service, 2001). For the new director faced with a brain drain of 17 Chiefs, amongst which were some of its most innovative thinkers and leaders, an administrative model prevailed and the new chiefs were managers working on behalf of a target-driven centre. This did not work well and as successive central leaders failed to resist the prisonisation of probation local leaders began to emerge. 

The new Trusts arrived with a younger, more female dominated leadership of the 35 Trusts which through its representative organ, the Probation Chiefs Association (PCA), began to drive forward a new agenda. Evidence showed it was performing well and innovating around such issues as Integrated Offender Management (IOM), domestic violence, sex offenders, accredited programmes, desistance agendas, the Offender Engagement Programme, etc. PCA as a fledging organisation, was beginning to assert itself and give a voice, often a female voice, to the views of its leadership in ways which approached the earlier more vocal ACOP in the recent past. 

Even if you took the ultimate government measure of success, reducing re offending, it was demonstrable on MoJ's own statistics that being on probation in the Trusts did help reduce reoffending (MoJ Analytical Services, 2013). During the early TR debates, this leadership was visible and articulated its dismay at the dismantling of the successful Trust arrangements. However, the corporate silencing which was imposed by the MoJ quietened that voice to a whisper and it felt that at that moment the leadership lost its power to influence the changes. Indeed many faced with the uncomfortable job of making TR work either resigned or were quietly invited to do so. Once again the leadership was decimated and as the new arrangements emerged, it did so with a much less experienced set of individuals, nervous about their futures whether as a result of their civil servant status in the NPS or the insecurity of their future in the new CRCs. The voice of that new leadership has been largely silent. 

Ironically the review of research initiated by the MoJ (MoJ Analytical Services, 2013) which drew on the good practice highlighted above suggested the following four characteristics should be at the centre of the new organisational arrangements: 
  • Skilled, trained practitioners; 
  • Well-sequenced, holistic approaches; 
  • Services and interventions delivered in a joined-up, integrated manner; 
  • Need for high quality services. (Senior, 2013) 
I posed this question rhetorically in a blog concerning these aspirations in 2013: 
’High quality services? Where can we possibly find a public service with top quality kite mark awards, reductions of up to 10 per cent in reoffending from community orders, a highly trained and motivated staff group, delivering integrated holistic services in cooperation with voluntary and private providers? Is this why we are seeking new providers? Wait, these criteria are met by an organisation in existence – probation trusts. So it makes sense to rip them in two, give it to providers with aspirations but little track record.’ (Senior, 2013) 
If the farce of diminishing the leadership was enough to impact on probation, it is a further tragedy that the organisational changes have wrought an existential crisis at the heart of the probation profession. This is discussed elsewhere in this volume (see Worrall et al.) which interrogates the impact on the occupational culture; here it is sufficient to note the warnings from voices rising above the parapet to reveal a sorry tale of the disestablishment of the Probation ideal. It can be summarised emotionally as confrontational, demoralising and divisive. In practical terms the status of probation officer has been diminished, particularly but not exclusively, in the CRCs; colleagues have been set against each other as they work for different organisations; communications have been made more complex and IT systems have proliferated without positive interconnected outcomes. 

At the time of writing, redundancies, sometimes as much as 40 per cent, are likely to be implemented! Training arrangements within the CRCs are undermined and practice is often being devolved to PSO equivalents in both NPS through E3 (NPS, 2016) and in the various models of the CRCs. There are, nevertheless, examples of good practice across the country, maybe in spite of rather than because of the arrangements. The future of probation as a profession is threatened by these changes yet skilled, trained practitioners were at the heart of the research evidence quoted above (MoJ Analytical Services, 2013). One voice picked at random from Twitter sums up the crisis: 

'#probation fast becoming a concept, not an institution/public service NPS enforcement and CRCs failed business.' (@sadSPO, 5th March 2016) 

140 characters says it all. The profession is under threat. 

So, above are insights into the changes, below are some of the fears and hopes expressed at the conversation in Kendal. 

  • Commodification of emotional labour (see Knight et al. in this volume); 
  • Individualist, oppressive, competitive environments; 
  • Silos will be created with no common language to ease communication; 
  • Individual CRCs will be amalgamated for the needs of efficiency thus breaking local links even more; 
  • Loss of expertise/local community links following abolition of trusts. Where is the link with courts in CRCs?; 
  • Management becomes procedural not professional; 
  • Commercial imperatives are prioritised at the expense of best practice;
  • The mantra becomes low cost service for maximum profit; 
  • Workforce no longer expects to stay in probation for life - short term work then move on; 
  • New managerialism defines training, then practice, of managers. 
  • Freed of National Standards this will release the creative potential of CRCs; 
  • Mobilising the creativity of people to manage change; historically probation staff are resilient; 
  • Will become more outward looking, the profession of probation expanding to include not just direct probation staff but all working in community rehabilitation and community justice including third tier organisations; 
  • Creative new way of managing in the changed structure; 
  • Strong confident leaders who can communicate the meaning and purpose of probation to the public and politicians; 
  • Strong occupational cultures regardless of diverse organisational contexts buttressed by an independent voice for the profession, the Probation Institute. 
The future of a recognisable probation institution is at risk given the organisational changes, arguably more invasive than previous attempts. Bifurcation of delivery means that integration of services for the individual service user is threatened. The deskilling of qualified Probation staff is a product of where an individual was placed in the reorganisation and not any assessment of their skills and knowledge. This threatens the professional confidence, independence and creative potential of probation staff, an integral part of delivering the always difficult role of probation. The need for effective leadership is compromised by the bifurcated arrangements. Perhaps it is prescient to speculate that when further organisational changes arrive, they may well seek to undo some of the consequences of this farcical and tragic organisational transformation.

Paul Senior


  1. As if to illustrate the worrying polarity of professional knowledge and skills, we only have to take a look at the current way in which trainees are currently processed in the National Probation Service. For all prospective candidates, don't be fooled into the belief that there a jobs waiting for you on qualification. There are current stories coming out where candidates are being informed in the most technocratic and insensitive ways that they have reached and end- point and cannot proceed to PO jobs. The PQIP route is a fig leaf that disguises the true nature of the de-professionalisation of the service. Steer well clear until this mess unravels over the NEXT TWENTY YEARS.

  2. Risk of 'training gap' in CRC's. Who remembers the impact of the 'Howard Gap' in the 1990's whilst new TPO Training being developed to replace Social Work Training route into being a PO?

    Even when introduced, Academics and Practitioners 'making it up as they went along' for the first couple of cohorts. I became a PDA in 2001 and things beginning to settle for a while and Training Consortia becoming 'centres of excellence' ......... formation of Trusts, disbanding of Consortia, introduction of Dip PP etc then sad demise and fragmentation of training requirements into CRC/NPS silos. At least staff are better supported training wise in NPS. Very sorry state in CRC's .....

    1. There is no training in the NPS!

  3. One crc takes newly qualified nps po but at pso level 'until a po job comes up' .bearing in mind the pay gap what't the guess that no po job will become available and the new recruit is ripped off! Who would want to train to be a po now? So glad i have my cqsw! At least it is still a recognised qualification!

  4. 2 comments 1 - re 1441 - I qualified with a DIPSW/MA in '94 and gained a PO job after an interview and flip chart presentation. This was not automatic. There were 20 vacancies in Nbria but not everyone was appointed, although most of those who didn't, found work as SW in child protection. Around 2008, we were informed that the DIPSW would cease and a new course would take over, but until then there would be no further appts - is the the Howard Gap you were talking about 1441? Staff received letters giving us the option of moving to another office, as part of a plan to fill in shortages in crucial offices. We could choose 1) to stay where we were or 2) move to another office of our choice. Nothing was guaranteed but they tried to suit everyone. Nothing was ever the same again.

    2) 1628 - you talked of newly qualified PO's working at PSO level 'until a PO job comes up'. This is not new. In 2010, in Nbria 20 staff qualified but there were only 12 vacancies. Some people got work outside of probation, others hung on as PSOs, wondering if they would be lucky every time someone left. I shared an office with an excellent officer, who was increasingly given higher risk cases, because of her skills. She was eventually told she could work as a PO, when I retired in 2011, but would still be paid as a PSO until it was sorted out with HR. She did succeed eventually and is still hanging on.

    off topic - please don't give up Jim. This Blog is a lifeline to many, a source of info to all, including those outside of probation, not just ex staff but the public, the politicians, the users etc. Please ignore the TR trolls, the caustic, and those who have a weird sense of humour. And take the bitter repartee as an opportunity for trapped staff to let off steam. I know sometimes the main Blogs are a bit dry, spesh to someone who no longer works in Probation, but it is all necessary. Where else would anyone be able to read such a variety of info - from PI, NAPO, NOMS, Inspectorate, Audit Office, BBC, the press, ex-staff, anyone and everyone with a sniff of information - all in the same place. It is a gem!

    Keep on keeping on!

    1. oops!!!! re my comment on 1441 - I meant to say 1998, not 2008! I think that was because I accidentally deleted the whole blog just before I sent it - twice! Seeing stars! - I know how staff feel when a lengthy piece of work disappears off screen!!!

    2. 14.41 here - yes, the situation you refer to in 1998 was the training gap. I qualified in 1995 from DipSW and had to compete for one of 5 PO jobs in former Area. Had resigned from £15,000 employment to undertake DipSW. Had local authority grant + £1,000 pa a Home Office sponsorship. Single parent with 2 children and had to claim State Benefits over summer uni breaks. When appointed PDA, was annoyed with TPO's who used to complain etc ..... at least they had 2year pay whilst training!!!

    3. References to CQSW training are I think are not apposite. The CQSW training was generic though with some,on Home Office sponsored courses (a minority who were also paid a salary), did have some specific probation input. There was I think an expectation that those HO sponsored students were expected to work for two years in the probation service though I don't recall if it was ever enforced. There was otherwise no link between training and recruitment to teh Probation Service for most CQSW trained staff.
      The Dews report circa 1994 which preceded and informed decisions which led to "the Howard gap" suggested that new training arrangements would allow workforce management so that an excess of trained staff would not arise and trainees could be appointed sufficient to meet the projected needs of the probation areas.
      It was disappointing for me therefore when poor workload management led to the unwillingness of probation areas to employ staff they had trained and indeed in some areas to continue hold vacancies rather than appoint. I would argue that rather than recruitment of POs the issue should have been one of deployment of staff that had already been recruited, trained and were now qualified. There was however a failure to recognise,including at a senior level, that the the new qualification was intended to operationalise competency to practice (assuming their PDAs and the university trainers did their job right) and Probation Trusts persisted in seeking "something extra" before appointing. This mysterious quality was ill-defined if defined at all and allowed for the consolidation of discriminatory practices. How else can you decide that someone you employed, trained and approved as a qualified staff member is not employable?
      It remains shameful that trainees are still taken on on what appears to be false pretenses. If they qualify they should be deployed. If appointed they should be paid to use the skills they have acquired. No ifs or buts or maybes.

  5. TPO's were employed on a 2 year contract that covered their work-based practice and academic studies. At no stage was a job guaranteed. Yes dependent on workload projections, which unfortunately the Probation Areas/Trusts mis-calculated. 2 separate issues here.