Friday, 4 August 2017

Nothing New

Right back in the beginning of this blog, I wrote extensively about my practice as a Probation Officer and attracted quite a few followers thanks to the sadly recently-departed 'Bystander'' having generously given my efforts an early plug.

A typical offering from those days was entitled It's the Relationship Stupid! in 2010 and I vividly recall at least one magistrate fulminating in astonishment at the very notion. By 2012 we used to have quite regular ding-dongs leading to Dinosaurs Clash and Dinosaurs Clash Again! All good fun that encouraged me in the belief there was definitely an educational role for the blog and by 2013 I had attracted the following on another blogsite:- 
"If you haven't seen Jim Brown's 'On Probation' blog yet, do so. The link is here and it's an excellent critique of the grumpiness involved in becoming 'practice wise'. Jim is from the 'old school', and I'm guessing that even by his own admission he's probably not the most innovative of Probation Officers. He relies on what he knows is effective and does not 'innovate' because he already knows what works with people. In new money we might call Jim's wisdom 'pro-social modeling', 'motivational interviewing' or even a 'desistance strategy'. In Jim's old shillings and pence we call this wisdom 'building a relationship' with clients (although he would undoubtedly argue that his methods are a great deal more nuanced and strategic than that). It's just that these days we've had to get scientific in explaining why and how it works."
And so it is with considerable interest that I note Russell Webster has published the following guest blog on his website. It's nice to know that sometimes there really isn't much new under the sun.    

What works?

This is a guest post by Alan Mackie of Get the Data which provides Social Impact Analytics to enable organisations to demonstrate their impact on society. Given the recent research that found the MoJ’s long running prison Sex Offender Treatment Programme was ineffective(and possibly counter-productive), Alan’s argument that the worker-service user relationship is as important as the intervention itself is very timely.

It’s all about relationships

A few years ago, at the zenith of the “what works?” agenda, I was managing the national evaluation of the Challenge and Support programme. Essentially, this was a programme of youth work designed to reduce anti-social behaviour in young people. Travelling on a train to visit a local project, I was accompanied by a civil servant who pressed me to identify the “magic bullet” to reduce anti-social behaviour. His minister, he told me, was seeking an answer. I explained that it was not as simple as that and that the relationship between youth worker and young person was essential. My companion looked disappointed and changed the conversation. On arrival at the local youth centre, he asked the project manager the same question. Well, her experience of decades of working with ‘at risk’ young people matched my empirical analysis. So, she thought for a moment and replied,

Well, it is all about the relationship.

Success linked to training

It was clear that the civil servant and his minister were looking to the evaluation to endorse certain practices that would reduce criminogenic risk factors. While the evaluation was unable to identify any specific interventions, it did find that effective outcomes were likely to result from well trained and supported professionals forming good relationships with young people and their families. In this case, the indicators of ‘a good relationship’ were the presence of an assessment of the young person’s needs and the tailoring of a plan of locally based interventions to meet them. Or in the words of the seasoned youth worker, if a young man who was referred to her wanted to do boxing, she would find a place for him in the local boxing club. In doing so she had formed the basis of an effective working relationship.

Evidence on the importance of relationships

For most readers, I expect none of this will be rocket science, particularly for those with a background in offender management. In that field, it has long been recognised that good relationships between offenders and offender managers are important for the identification of needs, ongoing engagement with the sentence plan, and ultimately rehabilitation. As part of his analyses for the Offender Management Community Cohort Study, my colleague Jack Cattell explored those relationships further.

While there was no statistical significance in the association between the quality of the relationship and reoffending, other important components of the relationship, such as duration of meetings and understanding offender needs, were significant. While the findings are not straightforward they do provide evidence of the importance of good relationships in offender management, together with the need to undertake more exploration into the quality of the meetings between manager and offender.

Evidence-based practice

The criminal justice system was well-served by the “what works?” agenda and the emergence of effective evidence based practices to prevent offending and reduce reoffending. Of course, it was never intended that these programmes would be implemented or replicated blindly without consideration being given to local context, staffing, and resources. When implementing a programme we should think about the resources that are needed to build effective relationships, particularly as understanding an individual’s needs and building trust takes time and patience. However, the rewards are there and can inform decision making on a case-by-case basis and the delivery of a more effective programme.

Developing indicators of good relationships

It may not be “all” about relationships, but good relationships are important, particularly in a society that is becoming increasingly transactional. More attention needs to be given to developing sound indicators of good relationships between the agencies and their clients. This will require identification of the professional values and ethics that support effective relationships, but also the expectation and experience of ‘clients’ or ‘service users’ and what motivates them to work with – and complete – an effective programme.

Alan Mackie of Get the Data


  1. In Skills for Effective Engagement, Development and Supervision (SEEDS) at the very centre of the model was the Relationship which focussed on, amongst other things, building rapport. It is in any setting that aims to facilitate change, fundamental. The evidence is clear.
    Innovation that helps support the relationship and the collaboration that can then follow is what is needed. Innovation that seeks primarily to do things on the cheap, that makes the relationship distant and less tangible is just cost cutting and backward. We can be innovative about where the primary relationship lies and to my mind this means taking considered opportunities to divert people away from the criminal justice system and from prison by investment in community alternatives and sentences respectively. Even so this will require thoughtful investment in resources, joined up and integrated efforts and training to be of useful consequence. This still leaves Probation Officers needing the training, supervision and the time to engage successfully with the people they are supervising. I cannot see another formula beyond this if the idea of public protection, rehabilitation, reduced offending and fewer victims is to be properly valued.
    I remain hopeful that Probation will see an increased investment based on the belief that the arguments for this are becoming increasingly compelling if not yet officially acknowledged.

  2. Why did you stop posting about your own practice Jim? Did you find an escape hatch?

    1. The Blog morphed into a campaign against TR and it's continued to focus on trying to help fly a flag for a profession that sadly is still completely misunderstood and could be in terminal decline.

      Until some other person or agency emerges to effectively champion the profession, the plan is to keep this running as a platform for informed debate, information sharing and an historical record.

    2. Thanks Jim. For what it's worth, I miss that content on day to day practice and wish we could see more of it. There are many of us with 10ish years in service who look around our workplaces now only to find were the old hands. I really value and miss the experience that's been drained away and would love to hear from those of you with that perspective on how you navigate some of today's crap.

    3. The piece I quote from another blog is not quite fair because I would say I've always been in at the forefront of innovative practice and was lucky enough to be able to build on many innovations of earlier officers.

      There was a time when management encouraged innovation and actively supported it with resources, but this was gradually squeezed out with the coming of National Standards and increasing bureaucratisation. Moving away from 'Advise, assist and befriend' just accelerated things, but it was possible for officers to keep to the ethos for years covertly.

      TR has pretty much made practice as many of us know it impossible, hence the rush for the escape routes. Only yesterday I learnt of yet another excellent officer who has thrown in the towel, utterly beaten down by the current situation imposed on us by shit politicians who know fuck all about our work and are completely unaccountable.

      The archives on here contain a lot of good stuff about practice, much contributed by others and if time allows over the coming months, I intend to experiment with posts that attempt to dig some of the best out.

    4. Yes please Jim. Now might be a good time to start some conversations about what an ideal probation service would look like from a practitioners viewpoint: I fancy it might become a must-read for those who are starting to scratch their heads about what to do with probation and how to address the utter mess its in. Nobody NOBODY involved at any level thinks it is working well, or that TR is a success, or even defensible

    5. A lot to be said on this but the genie is out of the bottle the profession as was a care and social ethos has long gone. We need to re establish social justice values and rid the culture of just deserts and the punishment loyalist group of senior management. They have destroyed any structures that centred the development of the individual. The notion of PO as all status and in charge again could never get the support of the cheaper PSO structure. Either we have to see a new order that is modern and forward thinking that includes all the skills and talents of the remaining staff, or we continue the decline as the infighting for top roles and authority will continue. We have to get the snobbery of the NPS levelled if CRC staff have a home back in high risk and professional practice is redeveloped.

  3. It's impossible to do anything other than sit at a computer screen filling in endless sidfing firms and trying to manipulate a totally shitty archaic computer system that, has happened twice today, kicked me out. This resulted in 2 calls to IT, answered by people who due to language barriers, we're difficult tonubderstabd, thus making the calls even longer.... aaaggghhh. When are we supposed to work with the people we write about? I absolutely hate it. 15 years service, cannot believe that it is getting worse not better. Why on earth is this shit allowed to continue?
    ed in twi