Forecasting the weather for probation

Work with Offenders examines a new tool to measure people’s experience of being on probation

Over the last decade or more, there has been increasing interest across the social justice field in getting feedback from service users about the quality of interventions they receive. In recent years, this has gone much further with the end users of services being actively involved in co-producing new forms of service delivery.

Probation is one of the fields in which this trend towards greater user involvement in the design of services has grown stronger. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation has endorsed the importance of including the views of people on probation in their inspection reports and is currently developing a new methodology to reflect this.

With the probation service struggling with a new split public/private identity – as most readers will know, the system is being redesigned again at the moment – Probation Inspectors have taken a lead in trying to stimulate the development of positive practice. One of the Inspectorate’s initiatives has been its “Academic Insights” series of specially commissioned research papers.

My eye was taken by the latest in the series, in which Professor Ioan Durnescu from the University of Bucharest, who specialises in comparative probation, focuses on the Eurobarometer – a way of measuring people’s experience of being on probation. 

Professor Durnescu starts by summarising the development of probation research across Europe which has explored the differing dimensions of probation supervision, looking at the impact on reoffending, perceptions of staff, risk assessment etc. One of the most important conclusions of this research was that the way offenders experience supervision influences the outcome of probation. In other words, those who perceive their probation officer as reasonable, knowledgeable and empathic are more inclined to attribute positive change in behaviour to probation supervision.

Moreover, supervision was considered to be positive when the probation officer had a good relationship with the offender or when supervision was described as helpful in solving problems or when a client’s welfare was taken into account.

The professor goes on to describe the development of a new tool – the Eurobarometer on Experiencing Supervision (EES) – to capture the subjective experience of supervision and help measure the success of probation.

This was designed as a comprehensive tool BOTH to capture the subjective experience of supervision AND measure the success of probation. This EES tool now includes the following questions:

  • six questions are used to assess supervision as a general experience (e.g. the meaning of supervision, primary and secondary stigmatisation)
  • six questions deal with the service user’s perception of the supervisor (e.g. the understanding of the supervisor’s role, the number of supervisors in the last 12 months)
  • the quality of the relationship is evaluated in one question with 14 items (e.g. positive, tense, distant)
  • practical help is assessed in one question with 13 items (e.g. my supervisor helped me find a place to live)
  • compliance is evaluated through three questions (e.g. motivation, likeliness)
  • breach is measured through four questions (e.g. number of times the probationer failed to turn up, the possible reaction of the supervisor to one vignette)
  • rehabilitation is covered in three questions with multiple response options (e.g. the severity of supervision, the meaning of supervision in relation to moving away from crime)
  • co-production and involvement of the service user is dealt with in four questions (e.g. my supervisor works with me when drafting the sentence plan).

Each question or item is assessed from a score of 1 to 5 with 1 denoting ‘totally disagree’ and 5 ‘totally agree’.

The questionnaire was translated, adapted and piloted in eight different European jurisdictions including England. The barometer can be used for a range of different purposes including the perception of individuals under supervision at one point in time. By re-applying the barometer, probation services can track progress (or lack of it) or the impact of any new approaches or interventions.

Professor Durnescu shares a table in which just 40% of people on probation in England said they felt better about themselves since being under supervision – this compares with more than 83% of probationers in Ireland. Looking on the bright side, no one on probation in England actually reported feeling worse about themselves since being under supervision whilst a quarter of those on probation in Norway claimed this was the case.

The Eurobarometer on Experiencing Supervision is an innovative tool that can help probation staff learn much more about service users’ perceptions of the supervisory experience. Critically, the tool captures both the experience of being on probation and its impact.

It will be interesting to see whether the National Probation Service which, from 2021, will once more be responsible for all offender management, decides to introduce the EES to find out exactly what those on probation think of the service they are offered.

You can read all about the Eurobarometer here.