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Regional Directors of Probation Workshop - October 2023

The Rehabilitation Probation research team hosted and delivered an input to a Regional Probation Director's Organisational Development workshop in Nottingham (October 2023). This second of three planned engagement sessions with probation leaders allowed us to share insights from the fieldwork in our case study area (to explore how representative the findings we are generating are of other regions), helped us capture and reflect on the challenges of leading probation services two years on from unification (drawing on data from our second round of interviews with Regional Directors) and, in this workshop specifically, to run an immersive exercise co-designed with our people on probation consultative group exploring the underpinning philosophies and values of what probation 'is' and 'should be'.

In line with the themes explored in our recent paper in the Probation Journal, our second round of interviews - two years on from unification - continue to find that managers and staff alike are having to confront a series of challenges in reuniting a fractured workforce. At a practical and structural level staff shortages and the knock-on impact on workloads within probation regions - as recognised within successive HM Inspectorate Reports - is making it challenging for practitioners to manage what is being asked of them and is compromising the efforts many would like to make to support the professional development of new colleagues joining the service. In terms of the negotiations around shaping shared cultural values within a unified probation service, we can see that many staff continue to wrestle with their attachments to their legacy organisational forms and/or are trying to make sense of the consequences for their professional identity and roles as the structures and working arrangements of One HMPPS take hold. These elements, and others, mean that across two sweeps of interviews we can see that the legacies of reform fatigue continue to shape individual and collective notions of organisational change vulnerability that can make it difficult for probation managers and staff to feel settled and confident in their working practice(s).

Moreover, within very targeted questions about building confidence in practice, the impact and reach of negative HM Inspectorate of Probation reports and the coverage of Serious Further Offences featured powerfully. Leaders and practitioners alike found themselves having to process the tension between the necessity and aspirations of inspections - especially around emphasising effective and quality practice - and reconciling these with the lived realities of their immediate practice landscape. Probation Regional Directors reflected in quite visceral language about the enduring harm of the 'body blow' of negative inspections and frontline staff of their need for 'external validation' from Inspectors in sustaining their efforts to keep improving practice. A feature for both groups was the reach of the Inspectorate Reporting and how assessments made in other areas had the capacity to resonate with and ominously re-charge their own more local experiences.

In the workshop we were able to work through these emerging themes and see how, across the regions, the difficult conditions being faced by those delivering services is being experienced. Amongst other things we explored some of the emerging data from our interviews with criminal justice partner organisations that is helping us explore whether probation reform is building external levels of confidence in the unified service. In the dedicated space for an exercise co-designed with our consultative group of people with lived experience of supervision we, collectively, explored key questions about what probation ‘is’, ‘should be’ and by extension ‘should not be’. This is an activity we are running with different groups of leaders, practitioners, and service users and the co-designed questions and prompts stimulated rich engagement that helped explore space(s) between the commitment to prevailing probation principles and the conditions the service is working within. We will, on this site, report back on our experience of running the exercise with our different target audiences.