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Researching Probation Unification

The decision by government announced in June 2020, to unify probation and to bring most probation services back within the public realm, has no policy precedent. The scale of the exercise to ‘in-source’ services on a national level has never previously been undertaken. As well as a recognition of the failure of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, the accompanying policy announcement committed to further investment in probation services (to the tune of £155 million on an annual basis, as well as further capital investment), with the stated aspiration to ‘Strengthen Probation’ and ‘Build Confidence’.  Such an objective of course is itself a recognition that confidence in probation has been eroded over the years in which the vaunted ‘rehabilitation revolution’ failed to materialise. So, what does it mean to bring probation services back together after years of disruption and turbulence?  And what are the challenges involved in rebuilding culture, identity, and legitimacy in a reformed public service?

Our research project Rehabilitating Probation is seeking to address these questions. The research is a three-year project (running from January 2022 until December 2024), and it is independently funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The research team led by Dr Matthew Millings (Liverpool John Moores University), includes Dr Harry Annison (University of Southampton), Professor Lol Burke (Liverpool John Moores), Professor Nicola Carr (University of Nottingham), Professor Gwen Robinson (University of Sheffield) and Eleanor Surridge who is working on the project as a Research Assistant.  The project involves the exploration of the dynamics of reunification from a number of perspectives, including an in-depth study of one case study area (one of the 12 newly constituted probation regions); the national perspective from the point of view of regional probation directors and senior policy makers; the external perspective from various national, regional, and local stakeholders and the perspectives of service users in a co-produced phase of the study. The Figure below provides a visual representation of the different levels of research activity.

Figure 1: Overview of research activity



At the ‘Local’ level in the first year of our study, we have interviewed 56  practitioners and managers working in a number of different Probation Delivery Units (PDUs) that span the case study area. These include PDUs in rural areas as well as those in towns and cities. We have interviewed staff who were either working in CRCs or the NPS immediately prior to unification (a roughly equal split of the sample). We have also interviewed a smaller number of staff who joined the service following unification, and therefore had no previous experience within a divided service. The average length of service of staff in this sample is 15 years, and the overall span is from 1 to 40 years, reflecting the broad diversity of experience within the probation workforce.

In this first sweep of interviews with practitioners we have explored initial reactions to the unification decision, as well as the experiences of how this played out in people’s work lives. Irrespective of where they were working at the time of the unification announcement virtually all participants welcomed the government’s decision. Some, such as Dervla[1], who was working in the NPS questioned why the decision to reverse privatisation had taken so long: I mean, it was inevitable. It was so shambolic after the split, that it was just a matter of time, wasn't it, before reunification?  While others, such as Mark a probation officer had regretted what he considered to be the waste of time and money spent on years of reforms: I was angry. I was thinking, what an absolute waste of money.

So, while unification was broadly welcomed, for some it was also a signifier of the ‘waste’ that had preceded it and was therefore mixed with regret.

Our interviews also show that staff were soon met with the dawning reality of what being brought under one organisation actually entailed. Rachel, a manager who had worked in both a CRC and the NPS prior to unification likened the situation to rebuilding after a marital break-up it’s like, how do you get remarried after you’ve been divorced?’  It is also important to remember that all of this took place against the backdrop of COVID restrictions, where staff were often required to work remotely under the Exceptional Delivery Model. This meant that many people worked with a sense of dislocation, and at the time of this first phase of interviews (Spring 2022), had not yet had the opportunity to meet properly with new colleagues. This sense of people feeling dislocated as well as experiencing significant organisational change led Matt a probation manager who had worked in legacy NPS to reflect ‘there are real issues around health and wellbeing and isolation’.

Most profoundly these issues were compounded by staffing shortages across offices in our case-study region (and as Inspectorate reports and MoJ workload statistics reveal this is broadly reflective of a national picture). Some of the staffing shortages were a result of people deciding to leave probation in the wake of further organisational changes.  Jenny a probation officer who had worked in a legacy CRC described the departure of a senior colleague, who made the decision to retire at the point of unification: She felt she'd been through it already, she didn't want to, she was at that point where she thought, ‘I'm not going through it again.’ So, she decided to leave. Other people at the time of interview were reflecting on whether they would continue to work within probation. Here issues regarding pay, conditions, and workloads were significant themes. Some staff for instance observed that they would be better paid working in retail or other sectors and have fewer responsibilities.

Staff departures and shortages have understandably had profound impacts on remaining colleagues, many of whom described working long hours to cope with excessive workloads. This sense of a cyclical impact is reflected in Andy’s (a Probation Officer working in a busy office) experience:  Somebody’s gone off this week and their cases have been reallocated and I’ve picked up another couple of high risk (cases)’ . The term ‘firefighting’ came up unprompted in numerous accounts, reflecting an overwhelming sense of dealing with immediately pressing issues to stave off chaos. 

My role at the minute just feels like firefighting…I don't seem to do any… I don't feel like I do any meaningful work. (Maria, Probation Officer)

It's just that constant firefighting, that constant feeling on a treadmill. And I can't remember the last time where I had a weekend where I didn't work or an evening during a week where I didn't work. (Alison, Probation Officer).

This was also underpinned by anxieties that people would miss something important on their caseloads, and this could lead to an occurrence of a Serious Further Offence. More than one participant referred to this as a ‘constant fear’ that formed the backdrop of their work.

At the time of these first interviews efforts regarding recruitment of trainees was gaining momentum. But while the prospect of new staff joining was broadly welcomed, many participants appreciated the fact that people undertaking the probation qualification programme (PQiP), would require time and support to develop their expertise and competence. Moreover, there were concerns that without sufficient supports in place for trainees, they would inevitably leave, thereby continuing a pernicious cycle.  This concern is voiced by Jenny, a Probation Officer working in an office experiencing acute staffing pressures ‘Because yes, you can recruit them, but are they going to stay?’

Themes around the impacts of organisational upheaval and coping with staff shortages were dominant features in the first round of interviews. We are just about to go back to the case study area to interview staff for the second year of this project, where we hope to interview many of the same people (as well as new recruits) to explore what their experiences have been like over the past years. We will also return again in 2024, so we will be able to chart people’s journeys over time. Our hope is to present as comprehensive a picture as possible of the challenges of organisational reform. In the other parts of the project, we are also exploring the changes from broader perspectives, with a particular focus on rebuilding confidence and legitimacy. In many ways probation is a unique study, but some of the challenges it faces (such as staffing shortages) are also seen across other sectors, and in due course we hope to present wider lessons regarding public sector reform.


This brief article about the project was published in the most recent issue of Probation Quarterly. 




[1] All names are pseudonyms.