I was taken with a comment to one of my posts on this blog. I had suggested that Probation work was complex but would benefit from getting simpler. In reply someone posted that the problem in my statement was how to distil something complex in a simple way. Many a time when I have been asked by a new acquaintance what it is I do for a living and having replied that I am, or until recently was, a Probation Officer this has been met with a number of responses. Puzzlement or uncertainty; they did not really know what a Probation Officer did or if they did often changed the subject or edged away (some were happy to chat about their experiences too). Curiosity; in which case having tried to explain what I did, I soon realised that trying to explain something complex in a simple way did not successfully convey the essence of what I did. Opinionated; many had a view about either Probation or offending and then often did distil this in a simple way but when their views were queried further with counter points or contradiction soon changed the subject or edged away (some were intent on pressing their views further and / or enjoyed a healthy exchange of ideas). In truth there have been many occasions and different responses, more than I can summarise here. Many reading this blog surely will have had similar experiences.
My reflection on all of this is that I cannot hope to convey the work of a Probation Officer in the main, although not exclusively, in a brief conversation. How could I? I have spent years studying and working to develop my experience, knowledge and skills and my naïve expectation was to try and briefly distil this in some way that captured the essence of Probation work. However, there are some things that I do know are fundamental to being a good Probation Officer and as a profession I feel we do need to be able to find a way of communicating this. Some, if not all, of these form my own blue print for a Probation Service to aspire to in the future and I want to set these out for comment and further discussion on this blog.
I feel it is important to be open about my opposition to the large scale privatisation of public services such as the Probation Service. I believe that the fragmentation of Probation was an error. I do not want to expand on my thinking about this in the here and now. However, I do accept that we are where we are and I believe my ideas are important regardless of the current situation or what will be in the future. I have so far referred to the idea of a Probation Officer and this is only because I have been one myself. I believe in the idea of being a Probation Service professional, in whatever role that may encompass, is what is collectively important. I am not overly concerned about names in this piece, Probation or Community Justice Sector, client, offender or service user for example but recognise that they hold different meanings and would beg the reader’s forgiveness in this respect. The content is also necessarily limited given that it is a blog piece and no more than a collection of ideas based on my experiences and personal thoughts. I will be delighted of any supportive comments or critical comments but would ask, based on another personal belief, that you ‘play the ball and not the person’. I am also writing on the basis that the ideas I have will be at least partially understood, by this I mean the wider extrapolation of them will be appreciated by those who read this blog; if not maybe the comments that follow may provide an opportunity to expand on them or even detract possibly.
There are five headings that I want to focus on. The first two expose my thinking that the relationship between Probation Professional and the individual Service User is of key importance. The third and fourth look beyond the first two to the wider Community in which they are situated and the Criminal Justice System which is their starting point of a kind and ongoing interest. The fifth risks being contentious. Over the years, I like many who read this blog, have become aware that crime and criminal justice have been something of a political football, often populist and sound bite, whose kicking then has had real and often unintended consequences. The fifth heading is called the Political Domain.
1. Probation Professional
2. Service User
4. Criminal Justice System
5. Political Domain
The Probation Service has traditionally drawn on a wide cross section of individuals and provided them with a route to qualification as Probation Professionals. The qualifications have been significant, a mixture of practice based and academic assessment. This in my view has provided for a highly skilled workforce and a healthy diversity of person and background. Practitioners and others have then had opportunities to progress their careers in a range of setting with their foundation qualification as an overarching platform on which to base their ongoing learning and development. My experience has been one where there has been plenty of opportunity to access further learning and different positions that have enabled me to become a more rounded and experienced practitioner. This has resulted I believe in enabling practitioners to find greater satisfaction and longevity in their careers as well as provide the employer with a flexible and motivated staff group. If, as I believe, Probation work is complex then I feel that there is much to be lost and little to be gained by failing to continue to invest in practitioner and others development in this way. I would argue that further investment is needed to truly cement probation work as a modern profession and Probation Professionals need to be provided with ease of career mobility. I make the following observations and suggestions.
Since I qualified I have attended many, many further training opportunities but these have been poorly recorded and developed. I have kept a record but the organisations I have worked for have not kept a meaningful record. I have never been sufficiently asked to evidence my continuing professional development or validate my continued professional status. I have been fortunate to have had my work in group programmes and my work in the training room peer and tutor reviewed and feedback for the purposes of professional development provided and it has been in these instances that I have made notable learning and development in my practice. It is plainly wrong in my view that the many years working one to one with service users beyond my initial training and qualification period has never been officially observed, not once. This is a huge missed opportunity for anyone who wants to call themselves a Probation Professional in my view. If like me you hold the belief that the relationship between the Probation Professional and Service User is fundamental to Probation Practice then a mixture of self, peer lead reflection and professional supervision is the answer I would suggest.
I am confident that many will agree with my ideas but equally will quickly point out that the current workload is relentless to allow for such ‘luxuries’ and systematically ‘no one’ really seems interested in meaningful one to one work with our service users. I believe these issues need to be addressed or at the very least clarified.
It has become apparent to me that the split of Probation Services between NPS and CRC has limited Probation Professionals career opportunities in the sense that their career terms and conditions are not as portable. I would suggest that this impacts on retention of Probation Professionals and makes the profession less attractive. I believe this is typically more the case for CRC than NPS staff but in the future there may be new, innovative and exciting ways of working in the CRC that NPS staff may want to access and bring their skills towards. Probation Professionals and Probation as a whole can benefit in my view if there is greater freedom to move between different parts of the Probation set up but I would also say between different parts of the Criminal Justice System. I do not accept that there are insurmountable technical reasons why this cannot be facilitated.
A final point here, Probation Professionals need to have their profession fully represented throughout their organisations and beyond, their expertise and views taken into account. I heard someone once say that the Probation Service has had its head chopped off, the body then disembowelled and hacked apart. A little dramatic maybe, but who are our Probation champions? If these champions are not easily identified what does it say of the profession? Surely a healthy profession has its professionals views represented and enthusiastically received at all levels and across the system.
In my view a genesis for new growth can arise when there is a working relationship between the Service User and a Probation professional. The Probation professional in my view brings their knowledge, understanding, skill set (based on all the evidence of what works and effective practice) and something else which I will call human compassion and mindfulness to the relationship. And the Service user brings his or her self with all that that entails. If I were tasked with designing a Probation Service and I wanted to have the means to deliver all that a modern Probation Service is tasked to deliver, for all its various stakeholders but very importantly the Service User, this relationship would be at its core and all else would support and connect with it. At the heart of this idea is a focus on the individual needs of the Service User which will necessarily shape the relationship, a working relationship that is not without prescription but equally which is adaptable to the needs of the individual.
Much has been made of the Service User voice, taking their feedback to help us tailor our approach to the work we complete with them. I believe it is an important part of the relationship as is society’s voice which seeks many things but primarily a reduction in the harm that these individuals are causing. The Service User needs a voice alongside others, the relationship between the Probation professional and Service Users can be central to this.
When I referred to making Probation simpler it was essentially about allowing in large part for the relationship between Probation Professional and Service User to be its own unique creation and not necessarily appended with anything else. This is a point I know needs thinking about from the Service User, Probation professional and others viewpoints. I imagine for some it provides for great potential and opportunity and others I imagine will be afraid of its consequences.
The relationship I have referred to is not the only genesis for new growth and should not in my mind be considered as somehow exclusive, ultimately it should seek to support other meaningful and supportive relationships. Many have said something akin to, ‘life or very little of it happens in our offices, it happens out there in our communities in a myriad of ways.’ There is much that can be achieved in our offices, hearing people, engaging them in thoughtful reflection, providing for self - motivation and direction, offering hope, fleshing out ideas, developing new skills, offering insightful challenge, developing perspective and greater understanding about the needs of others, signposting and engaging others in support, addressing risk and matters of public protection and much, much more. That Probation is so poorly understood by the general public is one of our greatest failings, we have very largely failed to engage our communities beyond what might be called the professional communities in our work (and even here?). Restorative Justice seemed to offer much in this respect for victims and others but beyond this how we engage with partners, families, friends and associates, neighbourhoods, the parish council, community centres, faith organisations, employers, the charitable and voluntary sector and more has been poor in my view. The consequences are missed understandings, opportunities and I think a sense that Probation work is remote and, therefore, frankly would not be missed. I believe that one way of addressing this is having Probation professionals allocated to communities and their cases resident in those communities, a Probation patch as I have heard it referred to previously. Again I imagine it needs fleshing out as an idea as some again will be aghast at the notion and others keen to make a start tomorrow.
I also believe that Probation professionals need to be better connected to the Department of Work and Pensions’ organisations in their communities, to Social Services and Family Services, Housing generally, Health Services, Citizen’s Advice and so on. The reason is to better support our Service Users with their needs, to better understand our professional communities and to make better use of our limited resources.
Criminal Justice System
In this blog piece I am essentially asking that the Criminal Justice System and all that that means to puts its faith in the idea of a productive relationship between a Probation professional and the Service User as being something of fundamental value to its aims and ambitions. I have always believed that we need to be accountable in this respect. I believe that when a Court passes such a sentence the challenge for the Service User and Probation professional is to return to the Court (or body of community representatives under the auspices of the Court) periodically across the sentence duration and account for the progress that has been made. I think this idea will promote progress and the relationship. It will develop a dialogue between Probation professionals, Probation professionals and the Service Users, between Probation Professionals and the Courts, and between the Courts and those who come before them around their successes.
Does anyone remember the Carter Report, a decade or more ago at least? Do you remember his sentiment that the silos of Prison and Probation need to be broken? It has not happened has it? At least I do not think that much progress has been made. I think the information flows between Prison and Probation are poor, I very often only had a sense of what someone had or had not done as part of their plan whilst in custody by asking the Service User themselves. Resettlement services often appear as too little, too late. My view is that Prison and Probation services need to co – operate and do better. In finding a Prison Service and Probation Service settlement that works better for Service Users I would ask for ways of enhancing the Probation professional and Service User relationship whilst that Service User is still in custody and long before they are released. The risk otherwise is that we just think of progress as something that commences on release from custody and miss much that has preceded it. We miss out on how the Service Users own community outside has interacted with them during this period and how the Prison community has panned out for them (and much more).
I have enjoyed working with the Police and others on multi – agency teams. The benefits have far outweighed any costs in my view. It is clear that there are Service Users whose offending is of greater concern than others in terms of the damage and harm they cause. Police, Probation and others can come together usefully to better address these concerns in my view. There are instances where local communities face particular offending issues and they along with the Police, Probation and others can usefully make a difference to those communities and together engage with the Service User around their rehabilitation as part of that joint work. I would argue for continued investment in this type of joint working.
I have avoided specifically mentioning the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) Revolution that has impacted on the Probation Services in recent years so far. I need to be upfront and say I was genuinely shocked by the scale and nature of the changes that TR brought with it, limited I think in its public appreciation and support that did, against huge swathes and a spectrum of professional advice, rush this act through in what many perceived was a risky and reckless venture based on flimsy evidence. Here I will stop as this blog has done sufficient to highlight those concerns then and on-going. My fundamental point is that this is no way to treat a Probation service or any part of the Criminal Justice System. I would advocate a circumspect approach to changes in the Criminal Justice System that are tested thoroughly and where the unintended negative consequences are similarly assessed before proceeding. TR is not the only example of politically lead changes that have resulted in unintended consequences that have arguably negated any potential advantage they may have sought. I would advocate some Political maturity, politics that truly engages with the professions it has responsibility for and seeks general consensus and consults widely, tests and trials changes and proceeds judiciously with them. On the whole we need evolution not revolution if we are to avoid trying to constantly mitigate and adapt to ill thought out changes; in a busy working life trying to adapt to well - thought out changes is testing enough.
I believe that the core task of a Probation Service and Probation professionals is to develop a working relationship with Service Users. I think this is fundamental and all activity should seek to support this relationship as it provides the basis on which much that we aspire to can happen. I am concerned that the profession of Probation is slipping away from this very important part of our work and becoming impersonal, machine like. Probation work and the ‘relationship’ that I have referred to throughout needs explaining so that it is better understood by all so that the relationship between the Probation professional and the Service User is better supported. This means continued investment in Probation as a profession and on-going professional development a key feature of that profession. By explaining our work better we become, I believe, more able to engage with the communities that we live in, draw on their support, the resources available and they on us. I see such relationships as providing for a source of recruitment to the Probation profession.
My concern is that for many Probation professionals the scope for career variation within the Probation and Criminal Justice System has been narrowed by the fragmentation of those services. To make the profession more attractive, less of a cul-de-sac, Probation professionals need to be able to move around the system with greater fluidity. Beyond enhancing retention and career longevity this is also the means by which Probation services and professionals can work alongside partner organisations within and without the Criminal Justice system with greater ease for the benefit of those we work directly with, our communities and I would say to make best use of our limited resources. With regard to the Political domain that I have referred to I would say bring along your ideas / mandate and work steadfastly (if needs) but carefully through and with all, particularly grass root professionals, to shape them to best effect; evolution not revolution.
This is my third guest blog piece. I do feel, as the months go by since I left, that I am now becoming too distant from Probation work and so I will make it my last. I have found that writing my ideas down in this way has been personally productive and I hope sharing them has been useful too. I remember my Father, in a seemingly casual moment, relating to me as a young person the importance of relationships. He asked me to imagine being stranded on a deserted island, devoid of other humans, week after week, month after month, year after year. He asserted that at some point a form of madness would set in and it would be very likely that such a person would start to doubt their very existence. Relationships he explained are fundamental to our sense of who we are and who we become. In the comments that follow I would be delighted if they sought to flesh out the importance of the relationship I refer to and if possible provide some narrative account to demonstrate its impact (for better or for worse).
Author wishes to remain anonymous.