Reflections on 'Voices from Practice' and Policy Development - the 1990s and the early 2000s

Throughout the 1990s, the probation service was being pushed by government to become an agency focusing upon risk assessment and public protection, punishment and law enforcement (Deering 2011; Home Office 1992; Kemshall 1996; Raynor and Vanstone 2002) via changes to pre-sentence reports (PSRs), the supervision and enforcement of probation and community service orders and other initiatives. This desire to increasingly control and direct policy and practice reached its logical conclusion with the creation of the National Probation Service for England and Wales (NPSEW). Its aims and objectives were set out by its first Director, Eithne Wallis (Home Office 2001). These were, in order: protecting the public; reducing re-offending; the proper punishment of offenders in the community; ensuring offenders’ awareness of the effects of crime on victims and the public; rehabilitation of offenders (2001, p. iv). The ordering of such priorities fitted into the trajectory of government thinking about probation over the previous decade or so. Going back to the ‘nothing works’ era of the 1970s (Lipton et al. 1975), government had lost faith in rehabilitation and increasingly saw probation as a cheaper alternative to custody, but also as an organisation that was ‘soft on crime’ (Newburn 2003, p. 105) and, under the general advance of managerialism (Flynn 2002), successive governments had sought to monitor and audit its work, culminating in the creation of the NPSEW, which was perhaps a high point of New Labour ‘modernisation’ (Senior et al. 2007). Although government policy might sometimes be seen to be contradictory towards the service, promoting both law enforcement and rehabilitation (Newburn 2003) by the mid-2000s, the direction was clear. Not satisfied with giving the NPSEW time to prove itself, the creation of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) (Carter 2003) with its aims of punishing offenders and reducing re-offending (Home Office 2004) left little doubt about the government’s intentions for the future of the service. Indeed, the creation of NOMS laid the ground for the marketisation and privatisation of the service realised by the Coalition government in 2014. Burke and Collett argue that Labour had come to hold a position opposed to probation’s continued monopoly (and as a result that of the state) over non-custodial sentences. Home Secretary John Reid is seen as particularly hostile regarding the service’s performance as poor and in need of contestability, marketisation and eventually privatisation (Burke and Collett 2010, p. 240). Furthermore, the influence of targets and a culture of audit also left a significant mark. Davies and Gregory (2010) report on the growth of targets throughout the New Labour period such that they came to be an end in themselves and that this tended to emphasise inputs, process and outputs, rather than other more ‘professional’ rehabilitative concerns. This, along with increases in caseload, led to a situation where face-to-face work had to take second place. In an interesting insight into practice, Matthews (2009) reported that the idea of the ‘good officer’ was one who was administratively efficient, rather than being skilled in any more therapeutic sense and studies of the practitioner’s perspective reported widespread concern over the spread of a target culture (e.g. Farrow 2004).

How much all of these affected the values, attitudes and actual practice of practitioners, however, is far less clear. Of course establishing what ‘real’ practice entails is not easy but Vanstone (2004) provides the most comprehensive analysis of practice within this period. Overall, the picture was one of a varied and eclectic approach, rooted perhaps most firmly in an individual casework that encompassed more interventionist approaches based in behaviourism and social learning (Vanstone 2004, pp. 123-139). However, there were also theoretical arguments for an approach based in ‘non-treatment’ (Bottoms and McWilliams 1979) involving a collaborative approach between supervisors and supervisees aimed at offering appropriate help to assist in the latter’s attempts to desist from offending.

A related aim of government was to change the value system of the service towards its new objectives, on the basis that this would also help to change practice. Clearly, the imposition of top-down changes outlined above was one approach, in the hope and expectation that organisational changes in terms of aims and objectives would influence the collective value base. Another was to recruit a different type of person to the job. Michael Howard had tried to start this process by abolishing probation training in the early 1990s and thus severing the link with social work, despite a widespread belief expressed in the Dews Report at that time that social work-based training had been fit for purpose (Ward and Spencer 1994). There was a subsequent gap in training but as far as my own recollections go, a number of (most?) probation services decided to continue to appoint only suitably qualified (i.e. social work-trained) individuals as POs (Deering 2016). In due course, the incoming Labour government resurrected probation training, but deliberately broke the link to social work with the new Diploma in Probation Studies (DiPS), which had the aims of ‘[protecting the public and reducing crime through effective work with offenders’ (Straw 1997).

In trying to come to some level of understanding of the extent to which these efforts had been successful, I undertook a study with Trainee Probation Officers (TPOs) in 2004—2006 (Deering 2010). This involved a self-completion questionnaire with two cohorts at the start, mid-point and end of their 2-year DiPS studies. The questionnaire used mainly open-ended questions but also utilised some attitudinal Likert scales to broaden the data and act as a form of triangulation. In this way it sought to gauge their attitudes and values when they joined the service (and hence reveal why they had joined) but also as they were about to enter practice full-time, thus considering how a 2-year training within both the workplace and higher education might have influenced their views. A total of 103 TPOs completed at least one of the questionnaires and the overall mean response rate was 70 %. Whilst not high enough to allow for strict representativeness (e.g. Sarantakos 2005), these were high rates compared to questionnaires generally and thus perhaps not atypical of the TPOs within the two cohorts.

Overall, the results across the period of training and between the two cohorts were highly homogeneous. In brief, TPOs had joined the service for what were largely ‘traditional’ reasons, that is, due to a humanistic interest in working with people experiencing difficulties and to ‘make a difference’. The clear focus was behavioural change, backed by a belief in the capacity for individual change and that crime was largely the product of a range of difficult external factors that might be addressed rather than some concept of innate ‘badness’ or rational choice. In this way, the focus of supervision should be broadly rehabilitative and not rooted in punishment. The study concluded that:

Whilst respondents recognised the government’s agenda [to change the value base and practices of probation work] they do not appear to have joined to follow it to the letter, but rather to acknowledge and work with it, with something of a different emphasis, particularly around what they regard as the purposes of the system and their role as practitioners. (Deering 2010, p. 23)

Overall, the conclusion was that government attempts to redefine the values and hence the practice of the service by recruiting a ‘new breed’ of practitioner had largely failed, but how might this have related to their practice, particularly after working in the service for a number of years?

In the midst of these changes, I had moved into education to teach on the DiPS. Partly as a result, I had become aware of what I thought was becoming a new orthodoxy promoted in government, echoed by senior probation management that probation practice (as opposed to policy) had followed the government agenda of ‘offender management’, punishment and public protection and that the NPSEW had become a law- enforcement agency, moving away from probation’s social, humanistic and social work roots. My own belief was that throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, many practitioners had retained values and practices based in the service’s traditional aims of assistance and rehabilitation, whilst also taking on aspects of the government’s programme, such as risk assessment and management.

To investigate the extent of the impact of government changes, between 2005 and 2006 I interviewed POs and PSOs (as well as a small number of managers) with the intention of finding out how they viewed the various policy and philosophical changes outlined above and how, in what ways and to what extent, these might have had an impact upon their beliefs, their values about probation and their actual practice. The study involved semi-structured interviews, focus groups, Likert attitudinal statements and the reading of case files and PSRs.

In broad terms, one conclusion was:

Perhaps the overriding impression from the data when set against the wider changes in the criminal justice system and the service is one of a group of practitioners with a clear idea of how they would wish to practice working in a structure that has made that ideal increasingly difficult to maintain. (Deering 2011, p. 179)

Practitioners were generally not openly hostile or resistant to government policies; however, they clearly had a significant difference in emphasis when considering their underlying values, the purposes of probation (as they felt they should be) and, to some degree, the ways in which they practiced. The influence of managerialism, as expressed by a law enforcement and target-driven agenda, was seen as particularly problematic, for example, the attempts to reduce practitioner discretion in relation to breach and the setting of targets for the scheduling of accredited programmes. Furthermore, at the time, the NOMS Offender Management Model (OMM) (NOMS 2005) was the means by which the proposed move towards a division between ‘offender management’ and interventions might be realised. This was seen as likely to inhibit the creation and maintenance of a good professional relationship, which was seen as the bedrock of effective practice.

It was also clear that the basic underlying values held by practitioners were the same as those of the TPOs discussed above and thus more or less aligned to ‘traditional’ values also identified elsewhere (Annison et al. 2008; Farrow 2004; Williams 1995). One of the fundamental elements of the government’s move towards law enforcement and punishment, that of enforcement, also had only qualified support in that it was regarded as legitimate in terms of the potential to deliver more structure to supervision and accountability to the court. However, practitioners were clearly of the view that enforcement should not be administrative or ‘knee jerk’ but needed to be ‘moderated by individual needs and levels of engagement, to maximise the chances of purposeful engagement in the supervision process’ (Deering 2011, p. 179). Other developments such as accredited programmes were also seen potentially positive, but not as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ panacea. In this way, respondents were opposed to the moves towards targets for the inclusion on accredited programmes of a large number of those individuals under supervision, instead arguing that targeting was vital, that is, that such programmes (and indeed any form of intervention) should be dependent upon need and that only the ‘right people’ should be included in such interventions:

Ironically, practitioners agreed with the service’s theoretical base, but

appeared to feel the service itself was not concerned with these professional matters rather than counting and measuring inputs and outputs.

(Deering 2011, p. 179)

In overall terms, there was little that reflected late modern thinking or the new penality (Garland 2001; Pratt et al. 2005) towards limited ambitions for probation supervision, or of the ‘need’ for ‘offender management’ and law enforcement and it is clear that respondents did not see themselves as ‘control workers’ (Rose 2000). One element of the government’s programme - risk assessment - had clearly been accepted as a legitimate and important role for the service (Kemshall 1996, 2003). Practitioners regarded the idea of ‘resources following risk’ as legitimate in principle, but became far less comfortable if this meant other individuals who might be at a lower risk of harm, but in considerable need and therefore perhaps of high risk of re-offending, receiving a reduced service. In this way, they worked with individuals to assess risk, but also needs, seeing the former as very much located within the latter. In this way, practice was intended to reduce needs and hence risk, the aim being transformative, not to ‘simply manage’ individuals according to their risk category (Feeley and Simon 1992). Punishment was not seen as part of their role, except in limited and specific ways. Supervision was not to provide punishment, except in the sense of placing certain demands upon individuals and thus limiting their freedom to some degree. Of course, punishment could also follow as a result of enforcement, but in the main this was seen (and perhaps rationalised) as a by-product of an individual removing their consent, rather than anything proactive on practitioners’ behalf; it was also regarded as accountability to the court in terms of the carrying out of a sentence.

In terms of the overall theme of this chapter — the extent to which there might be a gap between the rhetoric of government about probation practice and the actions of practitioners engaged in ‘real practice’ - what might we conclude from these respondents? When considering their values, there was a sense of continuity about the reasons why they joined the service and also about what might be seen as the most important, fundamental belief - that of the individuals’ ability to change - and also of the usefulness of probation’s role in facilitating this in some way. Interestingly, the ways in which this might occur, whilst linked to cognitive behaviourism, did not seem to consistently explicitly focus upon accredited programmes. Although practitioners did talk about changes in individual’s thinking as a way of reducing their problems, they rarely spontaneously spoke about cognitive behaviourism or programmes per se. Indeed, in reading case files and PSRs the insight into practice was that it seemed to be more reactive and needs based, something perhaps akin to a desistance-based approach, although this terminology was not used (Weaver and McNeill 2010). These ideas, attitudes and practices can be identified from other studies going back at least to 1990 and thus may be seen to represent some level of continuity (Robinson and McNeill 2004; Williams 1995; Humphrey and Pease 1992; McWilliams and Pease 1990; Vanstone 2004).

Overall, it seems likely that the gap between government and practitioners was real and might be seen to make real differences to the lives of those under supervision. However, this did not show itself as outright resistance, but was perhaps more subtle. As the original study stated:

it is probably most helpful to think of resistance in terms of everyday thinking, decision-making and practices in which practitioners engaged. On the one hand these may appear rather inconsequential, but they are likely to have significant impact upon the lives of individual offenders as they will relate to breach, assistance with drug misuse, employment and accommodation etc. and not least their continued liberty. (Deering 2011,

p. 180)

Perhaps none of this should be surprising (if indeed it is!) as it has long been argued that practitioners have to operate with discretion and make decisions based not only on official policy, but beyond that, in order to have the ability to act when necessary and thus to continue to do their jobs on a daily basis (Lipsky 1980). Hierarchical organisations, particularly perhaps ones as centralised as the NPSEW, cannot control activity ‘behind closed doors’. Furthermore, the extent of any such resistance is unknown. Ironically, perhaps, some of it remains invisible to a management and government in thrall to managerialism and thus concentrating mainly upon auditing the ‘completion’ of tasks ‘on time’ rather than any real interest in the content and quality of the work undertaken. Certainly, practitioners in this sample felt management, even at team manager level, had become divorced from practice in this manner. Perhaps this allowed them sufficient space to practice in a manner they preferred.

The study concluded by considering how practice might develop in the future and whilst it considered marketisation, the radical changes that would be brought in by TR were not anticipated. However, the more punitive and managerialist sides of the government’s agenda were seen as unlikely to change and it was posited that significant numbers of practitioners could become dissatisfied with the service continuing in such a direction.

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