Lost in transition?
A sense of duty
A team of three researchers, Gwen Robinson, Lawrence Burke and Matthew Millings, had a front row seat for the Transforming Rehabilitation project which privatised the probation service; they were involved in an ethnographic study of the formation of one Community Rehabilitation Company, undertaking a series of interviews with staff from all levels through the critical period of Spring 2014 – Spring 2015. I’ve already blogged on two of their academic articles from the study. The first article, which cast a different perspective on what it’s like to be a probation officer in the new split probation service, focused on the feelings of loss and uncertainty that this enforced transfer from public service to private company entailed.
The second article provided an in-depth examination of the unsettling process for staff of being compulsorily allocated to either the public or private arm of the new probation service.
Now, the same team have published a third piece in the Probation Journal on the experience of those leading a local probation trust through the process of creating a new CRC and handing it over to a new provider. “Lost in transition? The personal and professional challenges for probation leaders engaged in delivering public sector reform” provides a fascinating insight into a profound moment of change in the history of the probation service.
It’s hard to do the complexities of the research justice in a short blog post, so I’ve focused on key issues which I think are of interest and encourage those with an interest in the history of TR and of the challenges of leadership generally to read the full article for themselves.
A stressful process
The value of this form of up-close and personal study with a series of repeat interviews with the same individuals is that it gives a much more nuanced and detailed view of the process of change with participants’ feelings and attitudes changing markedly over the transformation process. The researchers identify four key stages in this process which they define as: absorbing; adapting; owning and relinquishing.
The task facing probation leaders was a uniquely challenging one; they had to radically redesign a new sub-division of their probation service to work with low and medium risk offenders, engage staff in a project to which most were either resistant or skeptical and then hand over the products of their work to a new private company without any clear indication about what would happen to their own jobs.
The researchers chart the feelings of senior leaders charged with transforming their probation service in a way with which most were uncomfortable:
Absorbing the impact of TR for managers went beyond concerns about their own individual prospects and tapped into what they considered to be a broader attack on their shared professional integrity, and of the vocational commitment and integrity they felt probation work stood for. The failure of ministers to stand up for probation services made managers resentful, but just as hurtful for some was the perceived implication that only through innovation and private investment could service provision be improved.
Many managers dealt with the internal conflict of having to lead a change with which they did not agree by setting out a vision of the new CRC which protected core probation values and would deliver a high quality service to offenders.
The researchers chart the confusion and lack of clarity about the design of the new CRC with the MoJ continually making changes to a process which was rushed through to be completed before the 2015 general election. In this “adaptation” stage, probation leaders clung to the ideal of rehabilitation with the potential for more creative and innovative work with offenders.
The owning phase was particularly taxing on probation leaders who had to implement a massive range of technical changes which made it difficult to keep the focus on a vision of a better probation service. This was the period when it became clear that a majority of probation staff wanted to remain in the public side of the probation service and the process of splitting a long standing organisation in two separate parts was emotionally painful. Many leaders came to realise that because they had been involved in the TR process for longer, they were further ahead in what was essentially a grieving process than many of the staff they were leading:
The rawness and scale of anxiety was impactful enough on staff, but what made trying to respond to and support their staff even more difficult was that for some leaders the voiced concerns mirrored similar anxieties they were still trying to manage.
Having done their best to design a positive new service and engage staff in a painful change process, probation leaders were then required to hand over their new creation to new owners. The research charts not a single transfer moment but a set of processes over a drawn-out and shifting timetable in the transfer of power. Managers had to reconcile overseeing business as usual whilst at the same time establishing working relationships with members of the new owner’s ‘mobilisation team’. Throughout they were having to comprehend what the relinquishing of ownership entailed for them, their career, and the CRC:
I came to realise that this [new owner announcement] isn’t the end and its getting difficult . . . when the transition started we had dates when things had to be done . . . we galvanised ourselves into action and we had a target . . . we’ve done all those [and] we haven’t transformed into this new way of working and it has slowed right down we have new owners but we don’t have the model of delivery, we don’t have the IT, we don’t have anything that makes us different.
Having worked full-out for a very long period of time at achieving the task of transformation, leaders were faced with the reality of TR:
What emerged powerfully for leaders was that change wasn’t going to be sudden and clinical; rather, it would be drawn out and vague. The new owners hadn’t arrived with a portfolio of new ideas to help innovate practice, nor were there going to be huge injections of staff to bolster the CRC. … The sense that ‘the probation voice is being lost’ was something that impacted heavily upon some within the leadership group.
The researchers summarise the experience of the probation leaders they observed succinctly and in a way that many involved in the TR process will recognise:
Despite the new owners citing the strength of the CRC they’d inherited, the personal and professional toll on individuals in trying to deliver on all these demands was evident by the end of the study as the bullish ambitions for the CRC were replaced with more timid and less certain ambitions for rehabilitative services.
This study is particularly timely since next year, probation will once again be going through a profound transitional process as new owners take over 10 larger CRCs whose design is still on the drawing board. Whatever this transition process looks like, it is likely to make exceptional demands on all those going through it and will be exacerbated for many by a hard to avoid sense of deja vu.