For most organisations, websites are their shop window – the face they show to the world. Most of us now, when we need to find out about any sort of business or company – private, public or voluntary – head straight to Google and search for their website – often in the expectation that it will show up in the search bar before we have finished typing.
I have at least a couple of conversations a week when I am urging Probation Trusts to overhaul their websites, update their content and make it more interactive and online-friendly; the critical first step before integrating social media so that website visitors can disseminate Trusts’ work for them. Sometimes, I get an uninterested response:
“What’s the point – we’ve analysed our hits and most of them are people looking for a job or wanting to make a complaint?”
If we set aside the argument that if there was decent content and probation trusts publicised their work more, they would get a lot more traffic, we are still faced with a fundamental problem.
In real life, as well as online, one of the key reasons that people don’t know what the probation service does is that they can’t approach it for a service.
Any member of the public can call or visit the police, Youth Offending Service, housing department, environmental health etc. and request help.
If you ring your local probation service and ask for help with your son, brother, friend or whoever because they are getting into trouble, you’ll be politely told there’s nothing they can do. You can’t ask for probation – you’re put on it.
The fact that people can’t get a service is one of the key reasons that the work of probation is so little known.
And that’s why Community Payback is so vital to probation’s public image. First, you can actually nominate work that you would like offenders on Community Payback to do – provided that it advantages the community in some way. Secondly, you can see offenders at work in a public place under the supervision of the probation service and, if the project is local to you, witness what a real difference can be made. There is an ongoing debate about whether Community Payback (which used to be known as Community Service before being called Community Punishment for a period) is primarily about punishment, the public shaming of criminals or restorative justice.
Nevertheless, there is certainly a strong consensus amongst probation trusts that the more worthwhile CP schemes require some level of skill and commitment and result in real community improvements, rather than merely litter-picking. The best schemes, such as the Plus Programme run by Leicestershire Probation involve gaining qualifications in employable skills such as gardening.
The Prison Reform Trust published a paper in the wake of the August riots which found that public support for CP had increased from 54% in 2006 to 76% in 2011.
It is therefore no surprise that Probation Trusts publicise the Community Payback projects undertaken by their offenders in a number of ways.
Some use Twitter to point up the scale of the work:
Others highlight the contribution that Community Payback makes to the local charitable sector:
A number of trusts, such as Merseyside, put Community Payback stories prominently on their websites with before and after pictures
Some Trusts – such as York & North Yorkshire and Lancashire – went a step forward and made a video to explain what CP is all about:
As my contribution, I have curated an online magazine featuring some of the best examples of how Probation Trusts publicise their Community Payback work – the public face 0f the probation service. They include articles, interviews with beneficiaries, videos and a whole lot more as you can see below:
So, we know that there is a good range of online-friendly information about Community Payback on Probation Trust websites – the challenge is to make sure that content has an audience. Perhaps the first target group is local community and voluntary sector projects who would like to avail themselves of unpaid work to help their organisations, and, therefore, the wide community.
Most local areas have Councils of Voluntary Services or equivalent umbrella groups who typically send out monthly or quarterly electronic newsletters. It is a simple job for trusts to get details of how to nominate a community payback in these.
But, as well as a phone number, make sure there is a link to the CP section of your website and an invitation to follow your Trust on Twitter.
As all of Oxford Street knows, getting your shop window right can attract a lot of business.
Probation Trusts can attract a much bigger audience by presenting the impact of their Community Payback work on their homepage.