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Too many demands on Senior Probation Officers
HMI Probation thematic inspection finds there are far too many demands on Senior Probation Officers.

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Excessive workloads

The probation inspectorate yesterday (18 January 2024) published a thematic inspection into  The role of the senior probation officer and management oversight in the Probation Service, which concluded that SPOs have an excessive workload which prevents them from being able to focus on their prime responsibility which the inspectorate describe as “ensuring effective management oversight of the probation caseload”. At the same time, the inspectorate published an accompanying effective practice guide: Developing operational structures and the Senior Probation Officer role

The report

The report’s conclusions are based on a significant evidence base. The inspectors undertook fieldwork in five probation regions and held  focus groups with a total of 94 SPOs and of 82 probation practitioners. Fieldwork was also undertaken with senior leaders in the national HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) teams.

329 seniors completed an inspectorate survey and 29 provided a detailed account of their activities. 

Policy, strategy and staffing

Inspectors found that there is no overall strategy for the delivery of effective management oversight in the Probation Service. Although different management oversight frameworks for casework and performance management have been introduced, these are not part of a coherent framework contributing to the confusion and uncertainty felt by operational staff.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report deals with the different (and more successful) approach adopted by the probation service in Wales which has adopted a learning organisation model. Central to this is the implementation of a ‘human factors’ approach in the sentence management teams. A premise of the approach is that humans are fallible, and errors are to be expected, even in the best organisations.

The inspectors found that staff in Wales have responded positively to the introduction of this new structure which has resulted in a less frenetic working culture. Morning check-in meetings and protected hours for probation practitioners to consult with SPOs have reduced anxiety levels, fostering a more considered approach to decision-making.

Lack of role clarity

A central conclusion of the report is that SPOs are responsible for too many areas and this makes it hard for them to give as much time as they would like to supervising practice and supporting staff. The activity surveys identified that SPOs spend significant amounts of time attending to non-operational matters including health and safety and building estate issues.

The national survey found that over 75% of SPOs had dealt with health and safety issues in the previous month and 62% had dealt with buildings issues. Inspectors were told of SPOs dealing with broken toilets, windows, and heating systems. The responsibility for HR issues was also identified by SPOs as taking up excessive time.

The reality of management oversight

Inspectors found a reactive management oversight culture in which SPOs are generally dependent on staff raising concerns with them before they examine a case. One-to-one supervision meetings have a broad agenda, restricting the time available to review cases. Only 39% SPO respondents working in sentence management thought that the current management oversight policies met the needs of probation service delivery and the probation caseload.

In England, many staff talked of a culture of fear driven primarily by the fear of serious further offences and the consequent need to evidence management oversight activity. This undermines the confidence of probation officers and the effectiveness and quality of management oversight.

Lack of training

There is no national SPO induction and training programme. The English regions and Wales have developed their own induction and development programmes. A Civil Service e-learning package on generic management skills is available, alongside the recently launched HMPPS ‘people manager handbook’. When the report concludes “these arrangements do not fully meet the requirements of the SPO role’s demands and complexity”, they are appear to me to be making one heck of an understatement.

Recommendations

The report concludes with six recommendations, including evaluating the Welsh approach and considering implementing it in England. Given the many misgivings about situating the probation service as part of the civil service; it is disappointing to see that the centralised system has not delivered coherent policies, structures and staff development – the functions it does so well for other disciplines.

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