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Modern Probation Theory
Former Chief Inspector of Probation Andrew Bridges sets out an introduction to Modern Probation Theory.

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Probation management is an under-discussed topic

This is a guest post by Andrew Bridges previously Chief Probation Officer of Berkshire and  HM Chief Inspector of Probation.

Managing probation

How should Probation work be managed? – this is a subject that is rarely explored as a topic in its own right. I and my colleagues discussed the issue  in general within our recent jointly-authored report Private v “Private”? about the Wales and south-west CRCs. But I’ve now also published an Introduction to Modern Probation Theory, to explain how I think Probation management should be done. Why have I done this?

As we know, the whole TR programme of 2014-21 was an ideologically motivated exercise. Although it is possible (just) to find some incidental benefits from TR, the overall cost of it in terms of quality as well as wasted time and money has been colossal, being the most egregious of the repeated national reorganisations of Probation in recent years.

And now, HMPPS is consulting on the question of “What kind of Probation Service do we want?” This means that there is every prospect that lots of people’s ideas will be added all together and announced as being the answer. However, the result will most likely be a highly aspirational and yet cumbersome and top-heavy concoction, while lacking commensurate resourcing and coherence.

A properly coherent approach is needed instead – i.e. a strategy – being one that starts from the perspective of the practitioners who do the work, and which specifies what practitioners are expected to achieve within the resources available. Modern Probation Theory is an attempt to describe such a coherent approach – not everyone will like every aspect of what it says, but it is feasible overall. The core points are shown here below; the full Introduction to MPT, and also the Private v “Private”? report, can be found on my website, together with my Memoir:

What is Modern Probation Theory (MPT)?

MPT isn’t about telling Probation practitioners how they should do their work with individuals who have offended, since a valuable canon of material already exists for that purpose, including plenty of research and effective practice guidance that will continue to evolve on how to help people to desist from offending.

Instead: –

MPT explains how Probation case supervision* needs to be managed, which is mainly from the ‘bottom‑up’. It’s a specific version of practitioner-centred management.

MPT is a ‘grounded theory’: It has not been contrived from an abstract ‘thought experiment’ – instead it has emerged as a theory by drawing on practical experiences of managing Probation that worked successfully in embryo form in the past, and which could be implemented now as a strategically coherent approach.

Key points:

  • MPT is entirely consistent with – indeed it positively advocates – the idea of ‘Quality Probation practice’ that most practitioners would recognise, i.e. aiding the ‘desistance journey’ needing to be made by of each of the people they supervise by doing the Right Thing with the Right Individual in the Right Way at the Right Time.
  • MPT has components which each start from the viewpoint (i.e. the ‘viewing position’) of the practitioner.
  • MPT’s four key components are Define (The Three Purposes), Desire, Design and Deploy, each of which, together with the fifth – Resourcing transparency – are explored in the more detailed description that follows further below.
  • MPT’s core component Defines what Probation work is specifically expected to achieve in terms of The Three Purposes; the other components flow logically from that.
  • MPT treats practitioners as responsible members of staff who want to do a good job (Desire), who are always open to continued learning, and who are also always prepared to give account – and be accountable – for doing a good job.
  • MPT would in that spirit require practitioners to make qualitative judgements about certain key elements of their own work with each case ‘in real time’ – i.e. as they go along – assessing whether each element has been done sufficiently They would be using the same criteria as the ones any managers or inspectors would be using if such people should subsequently look at the practitioner’s work.
  • MPT would make this possible by a Design of a single Current Sentence Record (CSR) to replace OASys and nDelius. The ‘lean’ Design of the CSR would radically reduce the amount of ‘required text’, would minimise entering data twice, and more importantly include only the minimum number of mandatory fields – those needed for focusing on The Three Purposes.
  • MPT accordingly assumes the need to Deploy such a CSR, alongside the other essential tools and facilities, both IT and environmental, to enable practitioners to do the work needed.
  • MPT recognises the reality that the resourcing of Probation will always be finite, and will sometimes be squeezed. Its Resourcing transparency approach would make it manageable – though still difficult – for both practitioners and managers.
  • MPT integrates its components into a unified approach for managing Probation overall, so that the work each practitioner does with each case aggregates into a clearly identifiable benefit that Probation brings to the whole community. It is unified from bottom to top in the same way that the lettering goes all the way through a stick of old-fashioned seaside rock.
  • MPT also has caveats. It is particularly important that its features should not be misread, misunderstood, or worst of all misused, since that would defeat its potential benefits. This applies especially to the subjects of performance measures (PMs) and performance management, where awareness of Goodhart’s Law is essential.
  • MPT is about managing Probation, and not about who should own it. In principle, the MPT approach could be applied by any future ‘owner’ – although, in reality, locating Probation in direct public service management seems to be the most natural fit.
  • MPT recognises that qualitative judgements are by necessity involved in any assessment of what Probation work is achieving – so MPT incorporates them explicitly and transparently, which is a wiser approach than employing metrics that appear factually objective, but which almost always include hidden qualitative assumptions.
  • MPT relies for its effectiveness on two-way presumptions of trust. Practitioners and managers need to be able to start their interactions with a presumption of trust that they are both honestly working towards the same ends, notably the Three Purposes.
  • MPT’s overall approach can be summarised in this way: While practitioners will not have discretion about What they are expected to achieve, they will nevertheless have a large degree of discretion as to How they go about achieving it, and they will be able to self‑assess in real time how their work with each case is progressing. This discretion will be informed by the ever-evolving messages and lessons emerging from research and other evidence-informed practice about desistance from offending, and about interventions that help that process.


*The focus here is on the role of the practitioners managing each of the cases – the “Responsible Officers” in recent parlance. So at this stage I don’t say much about Unpaid Work or residential work.


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