Last Friday (10 January 2020), the probation inspectorate published another in its new series of specially commissioned research papers aimed at exploring the evidence base underpinning probation practice.
Authored by Professors Chris Fox and Kevin Albertson from Manchester Metropolitan University, this paper focuses on the concept of innovation and its application to the delivery of probation services.
The authors start by saying that innovation is integral to ideas of evidence-based and evidence-led practice and there are numerous examples of innovative practice developing within probation and the wider criminal justice system. They set out a number of drivers for innovation in the probation sector:
- Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high.
- The profiles of people on probation are changing: Although the total number of individuals formally dealt with by the criminal justice system in England and Wales has been declining since 2015, and is at a record low, people with long criminal careers now account for nearly two-fifths of the offending population. A changing client group suggests the need for innovation.
- Interventions available to probation staff are changing: New technology has the potential to encourage innovative probation practice although the evidence that technologically inspired changes are reducing reoffending is not yet available.
- The need to do more for less: Looking at public sector reform in more general terms there are also macro-level drivers of innovation. The rate of real economic growth per capita in the global economy has been in decline for several decades. The political response is to seek ways of delivering “more for less”. That is to say, governments seek to drive down costs while modernising and improving outcomes through refining public service delivery. Innovation is key to this process if cost cutting is to be associated with an improvement in service.
The professors then go on to look at different definitions and models of innovation before looking at the current state of innovation in the probation sector. Here they conclude, like many others, that although the Transforming Rehabilitation was designed to foster innovation, little new thinking emerged.
Towards a more innovative probation sector
The authors conclude by suggesting a number of ways in which the probation sector could more effectively promote innovation. They argue that technological and financial innovation will be fruitless without innovation in relationships, both at the level of individuals and organisations and highlight five key factors to promote genuine innovation:
- Developing innovative ecosystems where a mixed economy of public, private and Third Sector organisations collaborate together for the greater good.
- This collaborative approach will only work if the different partners work together in pursuit of shared value – where creating value for society by addressing social needs and challenges also creates economic value.
- A co-created, personalised approach is more likely to be effective; both at the system level in terms of service design delivery, and at the individual level in terms of more personalised services.
- Localism: the professors argue that it will be easier to arrive at an understanding of shared value – and easier for users and communities to co-create solutions – if the system works on a human scale. They therefore call for a probation system which fosters localism in order to foster innovation. The professors share my view that the proposed new system with 12 probation regions is more likely to reduce the level of localism in the probation world.
- Greater investment in a broader understanding of evidence. The concept of prototyping and rapid experimentation are proposed as a more dynamic approach to innovation which allows new approaches to be road-tested more quickly. They point out that a more benign attitude to risk and failure, as well as better incentives and more open data would all help foster a more innovative probation system.