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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Service user involvement key to improving probation

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Probation services can create a ‘win-win’ situation by getting service users involved in improving and delivering services, according to new research from HMI Probation.

The Probation Inspectorate has used today’s publication of a new Research and Analysis Bulletin on “Service User involvement in the review and improvement of probation services” to announce its intention of involving service users in its inspection methodology.

Probation services can create a ‘win-win’ situation by getting service users involved in improving and delivering services, according to new research.

Key findings

The research bulletin found:

  • A range of approaches to SUI work are being employed across probation services including service user councils, peer mentoring, surveys, focus groups and consultations.
  • Across all sites visited, SUI work was being facilitated and supported by committed staff who strongly believed in its value.
  • Service users were also dedicated to this work. They identified benefits at a personal and organisational level – SUI could facilitate self-efficacy, social benefits, professional development, and desistance from further offending, and could allow them to have a positive impact both on other service users and on probation service delivery.
  • Challenges were also identified by service users, including the time commitment required, the lack of acceptance by some staff, as well as difficulties in engaging others.
  • Staff found SUI beneficial for gaining service users’ perspectives, improving service delivery, utilising service users’ skills, and providing a refocus for probation work.
  • Challenges identified by staff included integrating the work successfully into probation culture, engaging a representative range of service users, negotiating/recognising the boundaries of service users working alongside staff, the current lack of investment in terms of both time and resources, and difficulties in implementing SUI proposals.

 Based on their research HMI Probation set out a series of key enablers for the successful delivery of SUI:

  • Strategic direction to support the balance between the value placed on ‘lived’ and ‘learned’ experience.
  • Clear guidance in relation to inclusion/exclusion criteria for participation, the boundaries of SUI work, reward and remuneration, and potential opportunities for employment.
  • Maintaining a focus upon the welfare of service users involved in SUI work.
  • Effective communication of SUI work across organisations.
  • Open discussions with staff to ease any tensions and misunderstandings around SUI.
  • Dedicated funding and staff resources.
  • Use of existing toolkits, practice guides and HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) Standards of Excellence.

The Bulletin found probation services have different ways to get service users involved, with surveys, focus groups and user councils among the most common initiatives. Some probation services also offer service users a greater role in service delivery, such as helping to design and deliver courses to other services users or acting as peer mentors.

Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said:

“Getting people under probation supervision involved in improving and delivering services can lead to benefits not just for individuals, but also for their peers and for the organisation too.”

More than a quarter of a million people are under probation supervision across England and Wales. The Inspectorate found service users bring a fresh perspective and often identify issues that staff have not considered before. In one example, people on probation raised the cost of repeated phone calls to the service, as many of them have pay-as-you-go plans and do not have inclusive minutes. In another instance, service users reported that changing probation officers on multiple occasions meant they had to share their personal histories each time; as many individuals come from difficult backgrounds, retelling their story can be traumatic. Crucially, service users are often able to suggest solutions to these problems.

In some cases, the experience can be life changing. One individual told researchers: “I can’t ever see myself reoffending again, and I’d say that is mainly because of service user involvement. Without it, I don’t know where I would be two years down the line”. Other service users reported improved confidence and self-esteem, and of having a sense of purpose.

There are professional benefits too, as service users who participate in initiatives are often given training and some go on to gain formal qualifications. The format of some initiatives, for example attending council meetings or giving feedback to a Chief Executive, also introduces individuals to professional practices and environments.

Researchers found service users who get involved in delivering courses can have a powerful impact on their peers. These individuals – who have committed crimes but have since moved away from offending – can serve as positive role models to others. Service users can draw on their experiences and speak authentically to others on the same journey. One service user noted peers can be wary around probation staff but “open up to us straight away”; another said: “If you haven’t been in trouble, you don’t know. We’ve been there”.

The Inspectorate found committed and motivated probation staff are leading these initiatives. Researchers heard from staff who valued the insight, experience and skills that service users can offer. In some cases, staff were initially reluctant but changed their minds after positive experiences.

The research, which involved peer researchers who had been through the criminal justice system themselves, identifies factors that can support effective initiatives, as well as recognising that involving service users can be challenging. The research cautions that involving service users is not the right approach to take with every individual.

Mr Russell said:

“I welcome the increasing commitment I have seen amongst probation services to involving service users in the design and delivery of services. Our research shows this can bring real benefits for staff and for the service users themselves.
“Service users have a key role to play in helping improve the quality of probation services. We will be introducing new ways to share effective practice among youth offending and probation services and are committed to involving service users in our own inspection methodology.”

To coincide with the publication of this research, HM Inspectorate of Probation is launching its own strategy which details how the organisation will involve service users in the inspection of youth offending and probation services.

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All Probation Posts are sponsored by Unilink

With over 20 years’ experience in the criminal justice sector, Unilink is a world leader in probation and community corrections software applications, as well as prisoner self-service, prisoner/case management and prisoner communications. Unilink’s integrated suite of products provide a complete digital solution enabling efficient running of prisons and probation. Underpinned by biometrics it integrates seamlessly to deliver security, efficiency and value – while being proven to help rehabilitate prisoners.

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