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Experiences of probation (re-) unification
Research into probation staff's experiences of (re-) unification, particularly in respect of their roles, identities, and occupational cultures

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A necessary but painful journey

New research  published earlier this week in the Probation Journal – “A necessary but painful journey: Experiences of unification in a probation service region” – reports 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 one case study region, the researchers ( Matthew Millings, Lol Burke, Harry Annison, Nicola Carr, Gwen Robinson & Eleanor Surridge) consider staff’s 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. 

Ambivalence

Researchers found 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 used in the article tap into the sense of individual and collective vulnerability that those working in the sector find themselves having to manage. 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 – the research time found that most staff continued to demonstrate 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.

Crisis

The interviews, which took place between April and August 2022, found the majority
of staff at all levels and across the region feeling unsettled, even overwhelmed, by the frantic nature of the working environment they were operating within. The language of crisis was routinely used to characterise the volatility and uncertainty surrounding many aspects of working within the Probation Service and their lack of confidence that things would soon improve. Importantly though, this multifaceted sense of crisis was considered to be a sector wide phenomenon, not one confined to specific offices or indeed to the case study region. What seemingly underpinned all layers of crisis was the feeling many had that the occupational culture of the service was being eroded by the relentless nature of the workload demands placed on staff at all levels. Many respondents reported regularly working late at night and on weekends, which was having a negative effect on their work/life balance.

Optimism, pessimism & loyalty

Interviewees saw opportunities and threats in all aspects of the future development of the
service. The challenging pace, direction, experience, and consequences of the latest organisational changes affecting probation – its unification – were generally experienced as turbulent and unsettling.

When  asked about their optimism for the service in the longer-term, the researchers observed a contrast between present concerns and future hopes.

Interviewees were asked to rate how optimistic they felt about the future of the Probation Service, with a score of 10 indicating the highest level of optimism. The average score was 6 with half scoring 7 or more on this question. The quote below, offering a positive but measured view was typical:

“I’m at a 7, so I’m feeling optimistic that it will be better [but] I’m not convinced we’re going to get there in the timeframe that we need to. If you’d have asked me September I’d have been, 10, it’s going to be great, all these staff are going to come in and it’s going to change the world. Now [in June 2022] the reality is it’s going to take two, three, four years until we really see that.”

The resolve expressed by many probation staff to persist, despite the considerable day-to-day challenges, emerged even more strongly when respondents were asked to rate how loyal they felt to the Probation Service (with 10 being very loyal). 72% of those interviewed scored 7 or above with the mean score for the sample of 7.4. 

The researchers conclude by saying:

“All too often the voices of practitioners have been ignored in past policy discourses and some of those interviewed believed that this continues to be the case.”

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