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A necessary but painful journey: Experiences of unification in a probation service region

Our paper - A necessary but painful journey: Experiences of unification in a probation service region – explores research data generated through our ESRC-funded ‘Rehabilitating Probation’ (ES/W001101/1) project to report on probation practitioners’ reflections, one year after unification, of living through a period of profound organisational change. Drawing on insights from the first of three sweeps of interview activity with probation staff in our case study region, we consider in this paper their initial reactions to the decision to reunify probation and explore their experiences of the transition, particularly in respect of their roles, identities, and occupational cultures. In outputs that follow we will move beyond the local to explore the experiences of unification of Regional Directors of Probation, and of national level policymakers and Senior Civil Servants, but here our focus is on giving voice to the frontline staff who have most keenly felt and had to come to terms with the consequences of organisational change within the delivery of rehabilitation services.

Published in the Probation Journal, this first article from the research study, explores a series of themes that help us reflect on how staff in one probation region reflect on the sequenced processes of organisational change. In our previous study of probation staff experiences as they transitioned from public to private sector employment when the CRCs were first established in 2014-15 through the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) reform programme, we found considerable variations in how staff made sense of and adapted to the turbulent field around them. Less than a decade later, we are once again able to see that groups of staff find themselves encountering real differences in how they deal with continuity and change in an ever-evolving occupational field. We can see very mixed and sometimes ambivalent reactions to unification and contrasting hopes and fears regarding the newly unified service. We find amongst staff agreement that unification is intuitively positive, but that their enthusiasm for change is tempered by their appreciation of the complexity and time required to harmonise the working styles, cultures, and structures of very different organisational forms. The quotes we use in the article tap into the sense of individual and collective vulnerability that those working in the sector find themselves having to manage and tellingly the unprompted featuring in all our interviews of shared experiences and assessments of the speed, reach and harm of the TR reform programme – including by those appointed after the splitting of probation services - evidences how powerful a legacy of organisational trauma that experience continues to have within the sector.

Despite working in what was often presented as an unsettled and fractured environment marked by on-going staff shortages - whilst at the same time having to respond to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic - amongst most participants there remained a high level of loyalty to the probation profession (or the idea of probation). Whilst many expressed optimism regarding the longer-term prospects for the unified organisation, this was also overlaid with concerns about how unification would play out in the short to medium term. Their enduring sense of commitment and loyalty to their role was also being tested by what some saw as overbearing pressure to manage risk, coupled with the fear of being exposed if people whom they supervised committed a Serious Further Offence and our further sweeps of research activity will be able to explore how these conditions change for practitioners. In closing, we reflect upon the levels of optimism and commitment to probation values, reported by our respondents and we consider how enduring and resilient these will need to be as the unified service evolves.