The latest (29 July 2022) Academic Insight from the probation inspectorate explores the concept of professional curiosity in a probation context. Authored by Jake Phillips, Sam Ainslie, Andrew Fowler and Chalen Westaby, the report addresses the lack of professional curiosity has recently been cited in reports from HM Inspectorate of Probation in relation to specific cases (such as the Joseph McCann case) as well as in core inspection reports. The report is based on a survey with over 1,500 probation staff and 49 follow-up interviews.
What is professional curiosity?
The term professional curiosity is a somewhat confusing one; it has been used across several disciplines and means different things in different contexts. In social work, it often refers to social workers looking out for issues underlying “disguised compliance” – parents or carers giving the appearance of co-operating with agencies to avoid raising suspicions and allay concerns.
In therapeutic settings, professional curiosity is defined quite differently to describe a model of practice which seeks to understand a person’s life in a holistic sense.
The research summarised in this paper prompted HMPPS to define professional curiosity in a probation setting which I have reproduced below:
‘Being professionally curious is a process of always questioning and seeking verification for the information you are given rather than making assumptions or accepting things at face value. By doing this you can avoid some common pitfalls in practice: being ‘professionally optimistic’ by focusing on positive and not identifying where things are not improving or risk is increasing; making a judgement about new information without verifying it with other agencies involved; accepting an offender’s level of compliance and not exploring if this could be ‘disguised compliance’; allowing crisis/chaotic behaviour to distract you from risk management work and accepting this as normal.’ (HMPPS, 2020).
The authors note that at an organisational level HMPPS tends to see professional curiosity as a tool to assess and manage risk rather than having any emphasis on therapeutic or educational approaches common in other fields.
Researchers identified three barriers to probation staff engaging in professional curiosity on a regular basis.
The main structural barrier was a lack of time to develop the skills required to be good at professional curiosity, to create and nurture good working relationships with other organisations. This last is key considering the idea that professional curiosity relies on good inter-agency working in order to maximise opportunities for obtaining information from a range of sources.
The primary relational barrier is that professional curiosity requires the development of good relationships with people on probation (which, in and of itself, requires time). Good working relationships allow staff to know what questions to ask and makes it easier to encourage people on probation to open up so they can get the information they need. Thus, ‘good’ relationships underpin professional curiosity, suggesting it is more than staff simply being able to ask questions and not take things at face value. This is all the more important because, fairly obviously, professional curiosity risks damaging good relationships.
The final group of barriers are emotional ones. Being professionally curious evokes certain emotions which can act as barriers to action and so the need to have sufficient time and be emotionally aware is important. In particular, participants talked about a ‘fear’ of being professionally curious. This fear – in part – stems from an uncertainty about what they might uncover should they ask professionally curious questions. In other words, if you discover, for instance, that someone is perpetrating (or the victim of) abuse, you then have to act on that information.
One of the key conclusions of this research is that there needs to be a recognition that professional curiosity is hard work, especially in the current climate of high workloads, high staff turnover, and high-risk caseloads.
The researchers contend that this is even more the case when it is acknowledged how much emotional labour is involved in a professionally curious approach, as well as the professional ramifications of not being professionally curious enough.
The report concludes with a helpful infographic which sets out the three main requirements to support and enable staff to work in a professionally curious way: