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How has the privatisation of probation affected staff?

New study of the enforced migration of probation staff from public service to private company and the effects on their professional & personal identities.

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A probation diaspora

Last year, I blogged on an article in the British Journal of Criminology which cast a different perspective on what it’s like to be a probation officer in the new split probation service. (You can find the blog post here.)

The authors, Gwen RobinsonLawrence Burke and Matthew Millings, presented their findings from an ethnographic study of the formation of one Community Rehabilitation Company – basically they hung around and interviewed a lot of probation staff as they went through the process of moving from their probation trust to the new CRC. The article focused on the feelings of loss and uncertainty that this enforced transfer from public service to private company entailed.

The authors have now published a further article from the same study exploring further this process of “migration”. Entitled “Probation migration(s): Examining occupational culture in a turbulent field“, the article can be downloaded in its entirely from the current issue of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

As with the original article, I can’t attempt to do justice to the academic texture of their arguments here but there were some interesting issues to pick up on.

Splitting and fracturing

In the early stages of the research, following the announcement of Transforming Rehabilitation and before the creation of the CRC, probation staff had been largely united in their opposition to the splitting of the service and had taken the fairly unusual step of industrial action against the proposals, rallying around the call to ‘keep probation public’.

However, following the allocation of staff between the NPS and the CRC the researchers reported that it quickly became clear that the organisational restructuring had not only led to the establishment of new roles and responsibilities within the CRC but had also fractured emotional bonds and existing relationships, most notably with former colleagues.

Many interviewees mentioned the physical loss of former colleagues to the NPS and personal feelings of loss connected with the separation from the public sector which was seen by many to threaten both a ‘probation ethos’ and the authority and legitimacy of the new CRC.


Adapting and forming

Despite significant anxieties about the wider application of commercial enterprise to probation practice, researchers found that some staff beyond the senior management team in the CRC had also been energized – particularly by the prospect of improved IT systems, relaxation of national standards and a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation and meaningful engagement with service users.

Interestingly, a number of those interviewed had wanted to work in the CRC because they felt that the NPS would be too preoccupied with the management and surveillance of high risk cases and remain tightly controlled by the centre.

The researchers also identified another group of staff who sought to see the potential and the opportunities that reform could create. These individuals were characterised as “resourceful pragmatists” and  appeared to accept and process the changes – however opposed they may have initially appeared to be – and set about experimenting and innovating.

Exiting or accommodation

The researchers document how a number of staff (both those who had spent their whole career in probation, and those who have joined the service to find a more meaningful second career) chose to exit the organisation because the job no longer seemed to fit with their ideals or values.

They also found a number of younger members of staff many of whom tended to be more comfortable with the increased emphasis on public protection, risk assessment and risk management that had become the dominant features of contemporary probation practice and chose to remain in the CRC, believing that it offered greater potential for career advancement.


The research focused on the movement of groups of probation workers through a process of profound organisational change, tracking individuals who were employed in the public sector Probation Trust through the establishment and early operation of a privately owned Community Rehabilitation Company.

The researchers found not only that adapting to major organisational restructuring can be difficult on an individual level with the challenge of reconciling change with established ways of working and prevailing forms of identification but also that TR:

potentially threatens the conceptualization of a collective probation ethos.

They record that:

while we did not observe the wholesale substitution of public values and altruistic dispositions for private enterprise during the course of the research, it was clear that the imperatives and language of the private sector were increasingly infusing CRC thinking and some staff were finding this more difficult than others to reconcile with what they viewed as the traditional ethos of probation. Nearly all those workers interviewed were keen to hold on to a notion of ‘public service’, even if this was no longer located within the public sector, and their hopes for new ownership were often implicitly tied to their perceived ability to do this.

Throughout the researchers talk about the processes of migration from a commonly-held culture towards a new and as yet unknown work environment; they end by highlighting a particular concern:

that although the organisational values adopted by the owners of the CRCs may well seek to embrace the best traditions of probation practice, ultimately altruistic public service may only be actively supported if aligned to other commercial imperatives.

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