What are the values of the new Probation Service?

Work with offenders looks at how the reunified service is settling down.

After all the changes to probation over the last decade – the privatisation and fragmentation implemented by Transforming Rehabilitation and the reunification to one national public body last summer – what’s it like working for the Probation Service as it enters its first New Year as a new entity?

Anne Burrell, who still works in probation alongside doing a PhD researching professional identity in probation, has written a thought-provoking blog post on the subject posted on the British Criminology Society website (which you can read in full here). .

As Ms Burrell says, reunification was mainly celebrated across the criminal justice community by both probation staff and third sector organisations working in partnership with the service. There was a feeling that probation was “coming home” in returning to being a totally public service and that there would be inevitable gains from no longer having a split service with people on probation falling down the gaps between what was the National Probation Service and the 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).

However it is also clear that being part of a centralised civil service is very different to having the autonomy which the 35 Probation Trusts possessed before the upheavals of Transforming Rehabilitation (TR). Needless to say the change process has been contaminated by the impact of the pandemic and almost two years of people working remotely to different extents. As well as the obvious difficulties which we have all experienced when working from home for much of the time, it has been difficult for staff to really feel part of a new organisation without the chance to talk informally and socialise with new colleagues as opposed to participating in a thousand Teams meetings.

Mind the aspiration gap

As Ms Burrell says, there is a welcome change to the language of probation in the new Target Operating Model (TOM) which speaks more to the professional values and culture of probation staff in being more inclusive and is straightforward about saying that we should invest in more, better trained probation staff with their professional skills and judgments being integral to the work of probation. However, she also points out that there is, at least currently, rather a large gap between the aspirations set out in TOM and the day-to-day realities of working life.

The new probation service is clearly still very much an organisation in transition but Ms Burrell and other justice commentators raise a number of key challenges including:

  • Can a centralised organisation really provide the same quality of service as one that is more focused on its local communities?
  • Does a civil service culture foster additional layers of bureaucracy which mean that probation officers are spending more time in front of their computer screens and less time with the people they are supervising?
  • Will the many committed and passionate probation staff still be allowed the space to innovate and be creative in their work? For all the criticisms of Community Rehabilitation Companies,  much of the innovation of the TR years, including a willingness to invest in the value of lived experience, emerged from CRCs rather than the National Probation Service.
  • Will the new probation commissioning arrangements really herald a return to effective partnerships with the hundreds of specialist organisations which make up the local voluntary sector? Certainly, the results of the early procurement competitions via the Dynamic Framework do little to suggest so.

As Ms Burrell writes, it is possible to be optimistic about the future of probation while still retaining a health scepticism about the challenges which lie ahead.