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What’s it like being inspected by probation?

Jake Phillips' research on how probation inspections impact on practitioners, practice and providers.

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The emotional consequences of being inspected

Regular readers will know that I share a lot of content from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation on this site – inspection reports, research and analysis bulletins, academic insights etc. But what’s it like being the object of an inspection? That’s the topic of an intriguing new piece of research by Jake Phillips, just published in the Probation Journal: An analysis of inspection in probation and its impact on practitioners, practice and providers. The article is based on data from interviews with 77 participants from across the field of probation.

Overview

In general, participants were positive about the work of the Inspectorate and outright criticism was rare. Participants appeared to appreciate the positive impact the Inspectorate has on probation policy, practitioners and practice. The Inspectorate was valued for its perceived independence and rigour with which it generates evidence, standards against which it inspects services and the relationships it builds with both staff and external stakeholders in the course of its work. However, the feedback from interviews was not positive across board and there were contradictions, and tensions. Jake highlights four main themes, summarised briefly below.

Time and pressure

Although practitioners were, overall, positive about the inspection process itself they were much less positive about the pressures placed upon them by their organisation, and the amount of work required in the build-up to an inspection, which added to their already high workloads. Practitioners reported that once they knew one of their cases was going to be inspected the pressure increased considerably. Participants across both the NPS and CRCs talked about management oversight, practice interviews and preparatory work to make sure records were 100% accurate and up-to-date. Many research participants said that this pressure came from managers and that they were left having to ‘manage their managers’.

The emotions of inspection

Unsurprisingly, inspections also had an emotional impact on staff on top of the extra preparatory work required. Frontline staff reported feeling anxious and nervous in the run up to the inspection with some of the efforts taken by providers to prepare staff resulting in people feeling more rather than less anxious.

The research found a common belief that the standards HMI Probation use are a good reflection of quality probation practice and so a good inspection result equates to good practice. The majority of people in the service consider this a positive outcome in its own right. But there was also a high degree of concern about the reputation of the organisation, competition between CRCs and divisions and concerns that a poor inspection poses a risk to their jobs and, again, this seemed to drive much of this pressure on staff. This pressure also has implications after an inspection – several leaders and practitioners talked about staff morale in CRCs being affected by negative inspections:

A chance for reflection and validation

Interestingly, despite the extra workload and anxiety about the inspection process, research participants rarely reported negative experiences of their case interviews with inspectors. Overall, practitioners reported positive experiences from case interviews, and they were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the area of inspection which front-line workers had most knowledge of and found most useful. Practitioners described inspectors as being professional, knowledgeable, and respectful all of which resulted in the Inspectorate seemingly having a high degree of legitimacy amongst those it inspects.

The research highlights that the case interview provides the opportunity for the practitioner to engage in reflection. A good reflective experience appeared to depend on several factors: the ability of the inspector to quickly build rapport, the fact that inspectors have a good knowledge of probation work, and the way practitioners did not feel blamed when things were identified that could have gone better. Jake Phillips points out that this opportunity for reflection:

“needs to be understood within the broader context of probation workloads and staff supervision which do not allow for the time or space to undertake reflective supervision consistently across the service even though staff appear to value such an approach in supervision.”

Impact on practice

Somewhat disappointingly, the main reported impact of inspections on practice appeared to be a reminder to staff to keep their case records up to date. However, there were also reports of new training on some practice issues and managers using inspection reports to argue for greater resources for some activities.

Conclusions

The research examines the ways that inspection has both a positive and adverse impact on probation staff and organisations. Providers place a considerable degree of pressure on staff to do well – driven in part by external motivations such as professional and organisational reputation and competition that is built into the process of inspections and ratings.

The research uncovered some evidence that the data being presented to the inspection – in the eyes of some – is not a true picture of reality. The process of inspection which is supposed to be a more qualitative approach to accountability than audit appears to suffer from not being able to truly get beneath the surface of what practice looks like on the ground.

Jake Phillips floats the idea – suggested by a number of practitioners, but few managers – of unannounced inspections with the potential twin gains of reducing the pressure on staff and of gaining a more accurate picture of day-to-day practice.

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