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Capturing Probation Leaders' experiences of delivering public sector reform

Our paper “Lost in transition? The personal and professional challenges for probation leaders engaged in delivering public sector reform” (Matthew Millings, Lol Burke and Gwen Robinson) draws on data generated through our ESRC funded 'Devolving Probation Services' project (ES/M000028/1) to look specifically at the experiences of Senior Managers in our case study area as they made sense of and sought to implement the reforms written into the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) reform programme.

Published in the Probation Journal the article uses data from tracked, longitudinal style interviews with managers to capture their journey from managing a local probation trust, through the process of creating a new Community Rehabiliation Company (CRC), and then handing over their organisation to a new provider as the outsourcing of rehabilitation services took hold. In ways that complement the focus of previous articles from the project concerned with the impact of the devolving of probation services on practitioners' professional identities and of the shape and character of occupational cultures within probation, the paper captures the individual and collective tensions managers experienced as they wrestled with markedly fluctuating feelings, attitudes, and aspirations through the transformation process and of the four distinct phases of absorbing, adapting, owning and relinquishing that we feel capture their experience of being outsourced and transitioning into a devolved public service.  

We know that from the outsourcing and transfer of labour in the contexts of policing, prisons and courts that, even in a national context, these transitions are not uniform, sequenced, and straightforward. Rather, there are a diverse set of ‘privatisation journeys’ that can be taken and that need to be understood. The specific focus in this article on the experience of probation managers allows us to reflect on the experience of leaders who, under the TR reform programme, were charged with stewarding their organisation from the public sector, through a 10-month transitional period, and into the full relinquishing of ownership to the private sector. It is an account of how, with no clear ‘transition and transformation’ precedent to follow, a locally-based senior management team from one probation trust engaged with the task of implementing organisational change during a period of great uncertainty. We explore managers’ engagement with the language, working styles and vision of engineering transformational change and how they processed and began to articulate the challenges of new ownership, both for themselves (as individuals) and for their organisation (as a collective). We examine the resilience of the organisational culture at senior management level; the operational dynamism of leaders to embrace change; and the extent to which senior managers felt able to participate in, and take ownership of, the new CRC they were charged with forming.