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What works?
Alan Mackie of Get The Data argues that we too often overlook the importance of worker-service user relationships in successful desistance work.

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This is a guest post by Alan Mackie of Get the Data  which provides Social Impact Analytics to enable organisations to demonstrate their impact on society. Given the recent research that found the MoJ’s long running prison Sex Offender Treatment Programme was ineffective (and possibly counter-productive), Alan’s argument that the worker-service user relationship is as important as the intervention itself is very timely.

It’s all about relationships

A few years ago, at the zenith of the “what works?” agenda, I was managing the national evaluation of the Challenge and Support programme. Essentially, this was a programme of youth work designed to reduce anti-social behaviour in young people. Travelling on a train to visit a local project, I was accompanied by a civil servant who pressed me to identify the “magic bullet” to reduce anti-social behaviour. His minister, he told me, was seeking an answer. I explained that it was not as simple as that and that the relationship between youth worker and young person was essential. My companion looked disappointed and changed the conversation. On arrival at the local youth centre, he asked the project manager the same question. Well, her experience of decades of working with ‘at risk’ young people matched my empirical analysis. So, she thought for a moment and replied,

Well, it is all about the relationship.

Success linked to training

It was clear that the civil servant and his minister were looking to the evaluation to endorse certain practices that would reduce criminogenic risk factors. While the evaluation was unable to identify any specific interventions, it did find that effective outcomes were likely to result from well trained and supported professionals forming good relationships with young people and their families. In this case, the indicators of ‘a good relationship’ were the presence of an assessment of the young person’s needs and the tailoring of a plan of locally based interventions to meet them. Or in the words of the seasoned youth worker, if a young man who was referred to her wanted to do boxing, she would find a place for him in the local boxing club. In doing so she had formed the basis of an effective working relationship.

Evidence on the importance of relationships

For most readers, I expect none of this will be rocket science, particularly for those with a background in offender management. In that field, it has long been recognised that good relationships between offenders and offender managers are important for the identification of needs, ongoing engagement with the sentence plan, and ultimately rehabilitation. As part of his analyses for the Offender Management Community Cohort Study, my colleague Jack Cattell explored those relationships further.

While there was no statistical significance in the association between the quality of the relationship and reoffending, other important components of the relationship, such as duration of meetings and understanding offender needs, were significant. While the findings are not straightforward they do provide evidence of the importance of good relationships in offender management, together with the need to undertake more exploration into the quality of the meetings between manager and offender.

Evidence-based practice

The criminal justice system was well-served by the “what works?” agenda and the emergence of effective evidence based practices to prevent offending and reduce reoffending. Of course, it was never intended that these programmes would be implemented or replicated blindly without consideration being given to local context, staffing, and resources. When implementing a programme we should think about the resources that are needed to build effective relationships, particularly as understanding an individual’s needs and building trust takes time and patience. However, the rewards are there and can inform decision making on a case-by-case basis and the delivery of a more effective programme.

Developing indicators of good relationships

It may not be “all” about relationships, but good relationships are important, particularly in a society that is becoming increasingly transactional. More attention needs to be given to developing sound indicators of good relationships between the agencies and their clients. This will require identification of the professional values and ethics that support effective relationships, but also the expectation and experience of ‘clients’ or ‘service users’ and what motivates them to work with – and complete – an effective programme.

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