Tragedy and farce
The current edition of the British Journal of Community Justice marks the retirement of its editor Paul Senior and focuses entirely on the probation system.
As most readers will know, Paul (@yorkhull on Twitter) spent his working life in probation; his early days as a probation officer and the last 3 decades as a leading academic based at Sheffield Hallam. He is currently the chair of the Probation Institute.
Paul has three contributions to the current edition of the BJCJ but it one paper in particular I want to focus on in this post:
Tragedy and farce in organisational upheavals for probation: what next?
After a short and trenchant summary of the modern history of the probation service focusing on organisational change and the fluctuating quality of probation leadership, Paul Senior describes the “existential crisis” wrought by the implementation of a split probation system under Transforming Rehabilitation.
His summary of the current situation will resonate with many readers:
It can be summarised emotionally as confrontational, demoralising and divisive. In practical terms the status of probation officer has been diminished, particularly but not exclusively, in the CRCs; colleagues have been set against each other as they work for different organisations; communications have been made more complex and IT systems have proliferated without positive interconnected outcomes.
He goes on to set out his key fears and hopes for the future of probation:
- Commodification of emotional labour
- Individualist, oppressive, competitive environment;
- Silos will be created with no common language to ease communication;
- Individual CRCs will be amalgamated for the needs of efficiency, thus breaking local links even more;
- Loss of expertise/local community links following abolition of trusts. Where is the link with courts and CRCs?;
- Management becomes procedural not professional;
- Commercial imperatives are prioritised at the expense of best practice;
- The mantra becomes low-cost service for maximum profit;
- Workforce no longer expects to stay in probation for life – short-term work then move on;
- New managerialism defines training, then practice, of managers.
- Freed of national standards this will release the creative potential of CRCs;
- Mobilising the creativity of people to manage change; historically probation staff are resilient;
- Will become more outward looking, the profession of probation expanding to include not just direct probation staff but all working in community rehabilitation and community justice including third tier organisations;
- Creative new ways of managing in the changed structure;
- Strong confident leaders who can communicate the meaning and purpose of probation to the public and politicians;
- Strong occupational cultures regardless of diverse organisational contexts buttressed by an independent voice for the profession, the Probation Institute.
However, despite his attempt to see both sides of the coin, Paul Senior’s analysis is very critical of the changes wrought by TR and he finds it difficult to see a brighter future unless future organisational changes “undo some of the consequences of this farcical and tragic organisational transformation”.
It is to be hoped that his concluding paragraph does not turn out to be an epitaph for the modern probation service:
Bifurcation of delivery means that integration of services for the individual service user is threatened. The deskilling of qualified probation staff is a product of where an individual was placed in the reorganisation and not any assessment of their skills and knowledge. This threatens the professional confidence, independence and creative potential of probation staff, an integral part of delivering the always difficult role of probation.