From the archive: Where it went wrong for probation

Jim Brown /   March 4, 2013 at 8:33 PM 1,429 views


It’s a sobering thought to reflect that it all started to go wrong for probation just as I arrived on the scene as a fresh-faced ‘unconfirmed’ officer. I qualified with a degree and CQSW in 1985, a year after the government published their Statement of National Objectives and Priorities (SNOP) for the Service. It took the Thatcher government a long time to get around to us, but looking back on it now and with the benefit of hindsight, it signalled the beginning of our demise. Haven’t we done well to last this long?

Sadly SNOP represented a brand new way of doing government and it’s continued ever since. As this Hansard report of proceedings in the House of Lords demonstrates, a number of wise Peers could see trouble ahead for us and in effect began the campaign to try and preserve the integrity of the Probation Service that continues to this day. Opening proceedings was Lord Wells-Pestell, a former probation officer, and reading the transcript some 30 years later, it contains some ominously familiar themes:-

“I am concerned—and I want to say this as nicely as I can: I do not want to be considered offensive in any way—about the competence of those at the Home Office who are responsible for the statement of objectives and priorities, who probably have had no practical experience at all of being a probation officer.

I know that the noble Lord the Minister is going to tell me that they had the experience of probation inspectors. They had that experience, but it is a very different thing, when you come to prepare and write a memorandum, to do it after discussion with some people who have worked in the field if you yourself have had no practical experience.”

The debate is well worth reading in full as it canters over all the main issues of the time ranging from the lack of a plan, training, report writing, salaries, management and much more. There is even a contribution from the great Lord Longford before the Under Secretary of State rises and amongst other things introduces this very familiar sounding notion:-

“In future we shall be expecting the probation service to concentrate on making the most effective use of the resources which it has already. It must expect to meet increased demand for its services by more efficient and economical use of its existing manpower and facilities. In addition, a basis was needed for the application to the probation service of the Government’s financial management initiative. The intention is to ensure that the 80 per cent. grant we pay on the probation service is related to clear objectives and is securing value for money. There can be no objection to getting more for the same amount of cash.”

So what did SNOP bring to the probation party? Why joy of joys, bureaucratisation  and managerialism. Just for a moment allow yourself to daydream as to what your world would be like without these two expensive innovations. I’m fortunate in that I can remember. Happily it all took a long time to reach my particular probation neck-of-the-woods as my office was both geographically and managerially distant from from Head Office. In fact the joke was that we belonged to a neighbouring Service.

We just carried on democratically deciding our own local policy for years, with the SPO being an equal participant in lively team discussions. In those days we had almost complete discretion and just followed our nose. This is from recent correspondence and utterly typical in my experience:-

“he was a Programme manager and when we had a treatment manager appointed to the team – she commented that he often did not stick to the rule book – I replied that he did not know there was a rule book!!! He just did what he thought was right – a really old style senior rather than a manager.”

As usual the internet has thrown up an interesting essay on the subject by author unknown, but I hope they will forgive my quoting from it:- According to McWilliams (1992) the arrival of management into the NPS is a recent concept within the organisations development. Up until then he believed that the service had operated under a ‘professional-administrative model,’ yet the recommendations of the Butterworth report (1972) included the need for planning and control – and thus the era of management began. This shift largely occurred through Martinson’s proclamation that Nothing Works (1974). However it is important at this stage to differentiate between the concepts of management and managerialism. The former, in the traditional sense, refers to the ‘balancing and direction of resources to achieve certain intents.’ Managerialism on the other hand refers to the ‘implementation of a variety of techniques…..within a culture of cost efficiency and service effectiveness.’ (James & Raine 1998). It is therefore the concept of managerialism which, under the guise that public services including the NPS, should be run like a business (Clarke 1994) became the transformational force for reform.

So, the inexorable march of management, ably assisted by that essential tool for any command and control structure, the bloody computer, has got us to where we are now. Just a few months away from privatisation and ultimate demise.

Sign the No10 petition here.

Courtesy of Jim Brown at On Probation Blog

Sign-up for the Guerilla Daily newsletter – the best frontline and independent blogs every week day.

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

Leave a Reply