It pays to read the small print. A new kid on the twitter world has a self styled description of the Centre for Probation Reform. @ProbationReform describes itself as ‘ The Centre for Probation Reform campaigns for effective #probation services, offender management & increased use of community sentences. Awaiting Govt response.’ Innocent enough and whilst I was surprised I had not come across this Centre before was keen to find out more about it. Sadly their blog contains no Home Page locating this Centre or who is part of this august body. For now I have to content myself with an analysis of what they are saying. At the time of writing they have blogged three times. It did not take long to get the drift of their basic position. Their first sentence is:
With the response to the Governments consultation soon upon us it is apparent we need to begin to embrace the coming changes.
This is the dismissive undertone of the blog. Let’s just get on with the changes, they are a done deal and we just need to make the most of it. A sadly revisionist and defeatist position even before the government paper is out and sets this ‘organisation’ out as one that accepts the reality of probation privatisation. The next paragraph goes on to dismiss the concerns being expressed about public safety and the difficulties of handling the dynamics of risk in a fragmented arrangement. This is summarily dismissed with an analogy with Integrated Offender Management. If different agencies in IOM can manage risk it should not matter if it is the public and private sector working together, its just another organisational arrangement. This completely misunderstands the nature of IOM, built as it is on cooperative, co-located public and voluntary sector agencies, pooling budgets and staff to work together for change. This is well evidenced and researched. A fragmented set of agencies, competitively set against each other, with incentives being primarily about money not the public good, will find, inevitably, cooperation will be compromised and hedged by agency priority to meet their outcomes. There is no probation delivery in the world which is driven by contractors not organisations whose sole motivation is for profit. Working and cooperating with the private sector is fundamentally different to the arrangements being projected, we already do that. These changes fundamentally shift the balance.
We are told this should be embraced as there are already a plethora of agencies working in the community. Of course this is factually correct but on commissions from local commissioning processes which everyone would have embraced. Local commissioning is however different to the model proposed and despite the oft repeated cautionary remarks about whether sub contractors would actually retain a local focus, not seen to work in the Work Programme, this potential critique is again summarily dismissed. This will all be resolved because:
Rather than resisting this likelihood, focus should instead be on the creation of a type of Charted Institute for Probation which would ensure professional standards and competency, a benchmark for probation services whether public or private.
Again in principle one could support this aspiration, if it becomes a reality and if the standard required of all agencies are rigorously enforced. But I will return to this in another blog as they have a separate blog on this topic. The next topic to be treated with the same ‘analytical’ attention is payment by results. It starts promisingly enough:
I think we all fully agree in principle that support for vulnerable people should not be delivered on a profit making basis, particularly as this could lead to major abuses putting the vulnerable further at risk
Maybe we might then expect a demolition of the perils of PbR such as parking, creaming etc and the abject failure of the Work Programme to demonstrate success in its programmes. The managerialism of Blair is then evoked as part of a positive argument for PbR viz:
I can honestly say I have never heard of a probation manager, public or private, using strategies such as ‘creaming and parking’ to meet targets, and so there is no evidence to suggest it would happen in the delivery of privatised probation services.
Of course you have to be listening to hear such stories but such stories can be seen throughout the targeting era. It makes sense from an economic perspective. If this is how you earn money or avoid penalties then as an organisation you would be foolish not to ‘game the system’ to get the best outcome. Many probation practitioners knew that the chasing of meaningless targets took them away from their core task but it was about avoiding penalty. If I got paid for the number of lectures I gave rather than the quality of the lecture content I would be talking eight hours a day just delivering lecture after lecture. That is the deceptively simple economics of PbR.
The true colour of this blogger’s arguments comes out having set up this weak argument. It sounds matter of fact that the following proposition would be accepted.
At frontline level I’m sure many a Probation Officer would not be adverse to writing reports at a higher rate of pay, or receiving bonuses for getting a number of offenders through orders without reoffending, or for being financially compensated for implementing new ideas that transforms our work or improves success rates.
Actually if there is anything that distinguishes public probation from its private counterparts is that whilst not averse to a decent living wage the incentive to achieve good practice is driven through a public service ethos of reducing reoffending not the fiscal calculation of monetary reward. Suddenly it becomes clear that this commentator does not quite understand what probation has been about for the last 105 years. Further clarity on the thinking of this blogger is provided by a remark which is presented as uncontroversial.
It is a foregone conclusion that the Governments proposals will go though as planned and the major shift will be for the management levels of Probation Trusts rather than the probation staff
The job uncertainty created for probation staff by these changes are simplistically dismissed by the argument that as the job will be the same whether paid for by a public, private or voluntary provider staff will simply adjust. This of course is cruelly simplistic for thousands of probation staff facing an uncertain and potentially ‘poorer’ future. The ‘tupeeing’ procedures are currently being modified which may not protect staff fully by 2015 and the threat of redundancy or worsening conditions are clearly possible if not likely. The position of probation staff in London is still unclear but the rumours suggest all is not well for staff who have been ‘tupeed’ across to Serco. It also relates back to the blogger’s dismissal of public service as a motivator for joining probation. Many staff have foregone a more competitive wage in other industries for the security that probation afforded and the vocation it provided.
The challenge presented by this blog is to embrace change not resist change. I guess the history of change in the past thirty years of probation has not been on the reading or horizon of this blogger. But nevertheless undaunted the blogger chides staff:
We must be clear that probation cannot lead change if it is not willing or ready to embrace change, which actually made easy for us as the changes in question are not a matter of choice. We could even argue that change is necessary and we are on the brink of a unique opportunity to shape probation services as leaders in offender management, complete with a new vision which we must all align too.
So in the best tradition of delivering unpalatable change we must embrace it, its our moral duty so to do, why should we want to resist?. This is a reform to make us leaders in offender management! Well I can still remember the words of the new director of the National Probation Service to the then Home Secretary David Blunkett, in the World Conference on Probation (sic) in 2002 ‘Minister we are here to do whatever you want us to do. We will do whatever you want us to do.’ Leaders? We were followers then and have only in the past few years, with the exception of the voice of Harry Fletcher, asserted the good inherent in probation. Nowhere in Europe, as attested in a recent european-wide conference of academics, is such an arrangement for offender management being contemplated let alone enacted.
The use of the pronoun ‘we’ is interesting in this blog. Who is the ‘we’ the blogger is calling out to. Its not the probation practitioner I know. Its not the probation researcher who understands the evidence base for good probation practice. Its not the representative organisations, Napo, PCA and PA who have questioned the central tenets of this change. So who is the ‘we’? Given the corporate silencing of the probation voice in recent weeks is this another, more sinister turn, in providing an almost palatable ‘probation speak’ to soften the package of changes to be announced this week. If the Centre for Probation Reform can be less coy about its credentials and show its, no doubt, in depth and evidence-led understanding of the probation world I will have to accept that my own 38 years of study is lacking in credibility. Then again maybe the game is up for this softer tactical ploy. I will be back to deconstruct its two further blogs if people still need convincing.