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Probation values 'making common cause'

8 November 2018

In the second of three seminars, probation leaders reflect on the probation service values and what they mean today.

Probation values today

There was intense debate among participants about how probation values have changed and how the perceptions of parts of the service have also changed since the split. One CRC leader complained that despite working in the public sector over many years, former colleagues assume that since being privatised, her values have changed. They argued that former colleagues seem to think that CRC leaders “wake up every morning thinking about profit” rather than the public and public service. Another participant added that the picture is complicated still further by the interplay between a CRCs values and that of its parent company, which have the potential to be different or in conflict.

One attendee remarked that this mix of factors had potentially benefitted CRCs because if values are challenged more often, people are forced to think about and defend them more often, which has given them a “sharper” focus. One independent investigator and former probation officer said that he felt reconnected as to why he had joined the probation service during his work with four or five CRCs. He said that in many respects there is “a greater focus on people over process”, also in part because this part of the service is dealing with lower and medium risks offenders while the NPS looks after high-risk offenders, where there is inevitably a far greater focus on security.      

NPS colleagues also argued that values in their branch of the service had moved and altered since the split. NPS leaders reported to the group that some of their managers feel they can’t be as successful anymore because they are only faced with high-risk cases instead of a mixed caseload. Success in these cases can simply be “protecting the status quo” rather than desistence, which can lead to a sense of hopelessness among staff and have a potentially detrimental effect on the way work is done. One NPS region said they were looking at what can be done in response, for example by rotating roles.

Values and performance: the danger of perverse incentives

One academic at the seminar drew on her previous experience working in the education sector and how the advent of tuition fees had led to an expectation from management that tutors would sell education rather than simply teach. In that context, performance is looked at in two different ways – number of people being taught and educational outcomes. The question was posed as to whether the profit motive could “compromise” how the job is done.

In response, one CRC chief executive remarked that they have a tight focus on value for money to the public and that in any case, the model for the delivery of probation services is different from education. The reality, in their view, is that as chief executive of the CRC, “parent company owners may come and go” and in that context it is actually much more important to hold onto probation values.  

One former probation trust chief executive said he was pleased that the discussion around values hadn’t drifted into claims that probation values were unique and what made the service different. He was keen to explore whether values really did mean anything to an organisation in practice or if it were possible to separate “having a ‘value’ from being competent”. How we manage performance and help people to understand what they must do is important and can be got right and wrong in “very subtle ways”, he said.

All participants agreed with the maxim that “not everything that matters is measured and not everything that is measured, matters”. Both CRCs and NPS, through their contracts and service level agreements (SLA) respectively, argued that these frameworks can lead to perverse incentives where doing the right thing could be overlooked in favour of maintaining performance. One probation practitioner referred to one metric that required CRCs to offer a community payback place to an offender within seven days of them being given an order. This could lead to the wrong type of placement being offered or, in the worst case, being forced to place someone with insufficient information about the risk they pose. A similar point was raised regarding measuring “successful completions” for a particular intervention – something which has been done over many years, and tells you about how many people have attended a course but reveals very little about outcome or success.

One participant noted that many of the metrics they had worked under in the public sector had changed radically since moving to privatised CRC. At the beginning of the contract, they had questioned why a target had been set at more than 90 per cent when they knew that through their entire career it had only ever reached 50-60 per cent. They were told that private companies “could never” be set a target of less than 90 per cent, no matter how unachievable that would be.

In this context, the role of inspectors was praised by all attendees, who felt that inspecting standards better reflect “quality” probation work. Inspectors approach also tends to be different, with staff tending to feel they get a “fair hearing”.

Values: making common cause?

There was a rich discussion about the role of values as a framework to help challenge perverse incentives which practitioners believe impact the quality of their practice. NPS colleagues felt that the strength of the CRC contract was that they provide a clear mechanism to do that, whereas the SLA is more “informal”.

Participants agreed that a key challenge was educating people inside the sector – and on the outside – who do not understand the work or how it is done. But could a shared set of values help to heal rifts in the service and provide a meaningful way for people to come together for training and research, for example?

The overriding sense from all participants is that despite the changes and the split, there are values which are common across probation services. Integrity in how we work, the belief in a person’s capacity to change, empathy with the people we work with, honesty and openness and transparency. One participant summarised that in some ways, the dedication of probation workers to supporting the people they work with, could be characterised as a “somewhat irrational affection” given the challenge of trying to make a difference in circumstances that are often chaotic.

And while a shared set of values would he helpful to overcome divisions, one participant raised the question as to whether in the context of a divided service, a common framework on identity and values is even more imperative for the service’s leadership. This would allow leaders from both branches of the service to push back when other parts of the criminal justice system want to pursue action that in our professional view would be detrimental to the public. Ultimately, they said, for the service to promote the wider interests of the sector and have a stake in the wider narrative around crime, justice and the criminal justice system, a recognisable identity and set of values would be invaluable support in this mission.

This is a write-up of the second of three events about probation in England and Wales held on Wednesday 24 October 2018 at Kent Surrey and Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company’s (KSS CRC) Gravesend hub. The event was open to all those who work in probation.

A summary of the first event on identity is hosted on the KSS CRC website. There will be a further event in November to discuss the role of probation in the criminal justice system.


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