Innovation and Privatisation in the Probation Service in England and Wales

Published 15/03/2016
Type Article
Author(s) Wendy Fitzgibbon
Corresponding Authors Wendy Fitzgibbon, Professor of Criminology, London Metropolitan University

Is it possible that innovation can arise out of the privatisation of the probation service in England and Wales? A frequent justification for the creation of the Community Rehabilitation Companies to supervise the majority of probation clients is that it can.

However, there is a paradox here that must be addressed. It is almost a truism that the long term development of probation in England and Wales since the 1990s has involved a shift away from rehabilitation and desistance through community re-integration towards risk management through surveillance and discipline administered by an increasingly deskilled workforce (Fitzgibbon, 2007; 2011).

This shift has taken place irrespective of privatisation (Fitzgibbon, 2013; Fitzgibbon & Lea, 2014). A graphic illustration of this is the fact that the recent introduction of biometric reporting now being deployed by Sodexo this year to effect a 30 per cent cut in probation staff in the CRCs under its control, (Travis, 2015) was in fact piloted by London Probation back in 2012. The pilot project was justified at the time as a bureaucracy reduction exercise which would liberate practitioners from excessive time spent on administration (Doward, 2012). Many feared it would be used to justify staffing cuts and redundancies  and this appears to have now been true.

Nevertheless probation practitioners have opposed privatisation precisely on the grounds that it accentuates such tendencies, of deskilling, insecurity and an erosion of working conditions and continues the increasing precariatisation of the practitioner labour force (Standing, 2011). Practitioners now talk about the ‘end of the probation ideal’ and are demoralised and concerned about their futures (Deering & Feilzer, 2015).

What this ideal refers to is obviously not the recent history of national standards and the role of the Ministry of Justice in deskilling but rather the semi-autonomous social work tradition which still survives in the probation service but which will, practitioners fear, be effectively killed off by privatisation and the new CRCs.

Thus the issue is not in fact privatisation per se as a form of organisational change but the final destruction of the autonomous probation culture. As Whitehead and Crawshaw noted (2013) Probation:

 ‘…has a textured and semi-autonomous cultural history … [with] … its own internal dynamics, professional routines, primary tasks and ethical-cultural configurations … [which exhibited the ability] … to challenge, resist and modify the prevailing hegemonic order.’ (Whitehead & Crawshaw, 2013:10)

That culture has been crucial in sustaining the importance of traditional rehabilitation methods and it is this culture that has been placed under threat as much from the state as from the private sector (Fitzgibbon & Lea, 2014).

In this context the role of academic research in the probation area is complex and important. On the one hand much Home Office/Ministry of Justice sponsored research (e.g. on risk management) has supported the conventional state agendas. It can be expected that the private sector may start to take over direct funding of such research e.g. into most cost-effective forms of surveillance and biometric reporting.

But much academic research has sustained the probation ‘counter-culture’ of traditional rehabilitation methods in working with offenders in the face of the risk agenda. One immediately thinks of such research as the Liverpool desistance studies by Shadd Maruna and others (Carvalho, Maruna & Porter, 2004).

The question is what the role of such research will be in the new world of privatisation. One example to illustrate this issue is some recent research undertaken with academics and practitioners in a European context on the role of Photovoice as a rehabilitation technique.

Photovoice is an established method developed initially by researchers in the area of health promotion (Wang & Burris, 1997). By utilizing photographs taken and selected by participants, respondents can reflect upon and explore the reasons, emotions and experiences that have guided their chosen images. This visual approach is a potentially powerful research tool to examine supervision experiences from the offender’s perspective in an innovative and engaging manner.

Supervisible, a Photovoice research project, arose out of a paper presented at a meeting of the COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) Offender Supervision in Europe Group. This European network involved researchers across 23 countries working for almost four years (from 2012-2016) to promote cooperation between institutions and individuals in different European states (and with different disciplinary perspectives) carrying out research on offender supervision. The primary aim has been to explore and Innovation and privatisation in the probation service in England and Wales share best practice in supervision. The sub-group ‘Experiencing Supervision’ felt that a new visual method of exploration of offenders’ experience of supervision would be helpful and would enable participants to feel empowered and enriched by the process of being involved in a creative research project. Offenders are often people who have had negative experiences in terms of their educational achievement and their literacy skills (McNeill et al., 2011). This often inhibits their confidence and ability to verbally articulate their
experiences and feelings, in common with other marginalised groups within society. Creative interventions can enable participants to increase their self-esteem and selfconfidence as well as develop new skills with which to communicate to themselves and share their emotions/experiences with others (Palibroda et al., 2009). Supervisible aims begin to bridge the gap in academic knowledge of how supervision is experienced and understood by those subject to it. It uses a visual and innovative Photovoice methodology to understand the perspectives of service users. Participants are invited to take a series of photographs, select specific ones and discuss their choices and motives with the researchers and fellow participants.

The technique was found to be highly successful not just in providing rich research data but in enabling supervisees to gain insight and begin to build a more confident and selfaware perception of themselves as worthwhile people who could be re-integrated into society. By creating a visual biography which dealt with the whole person this method of engagement clashes with fragmentation of ‘datavidual’ into risk scores (Franko Aas, 2004). This is a labour-intensive way of working and clients need reassurance that photos are not about surveillance, they need time and space to tell their stories. However it has been widely and successfully used in a variety of settings in many countries (Wang & Burris, 1997; Rose, 2006).

How can this type of labour- and time-intensive, ‘whole person’ oriented research help the work of practitioners? Obviously it is viable research as such, in a European context, because no other jurisdiction either in the UK or in the EU has followed the privatisation ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ agenda imposed on England and Wales. Comparative research utilising such techniques can potentially demonstrate which methods of engagement and support work most effectively with offenders on supervision as well as highlight policies which obstruct or impede meaningful interaction. Thus insight gained from England and Wales as well as other European countries enables practitioners to learn from one another and to strengthen their professional knowledge and integrity. However could such skilled innovative techniques be successfully deployed within a Community Rehabilitation Company?

There are two issues: are the CRCs likely to be innovators and is Photovoice the sort of innovation they might be interested in? Much centres on the debate on payment by results (PbR). If desistance targets can be achieved by the ‘Sodexo model’ – redundancies and kiosk reporting- then the only type of research the CRCs will be interested in will be that which explores and refines the use of technology and pacification. If they kill off the old probation culture through redundancies and recruitment of a new ‘precariat’ labour force of surveillance operatives then there will be no link any longer with desistance research such as that of Liverpool or Photovoice (see Fitzgibbon & Lea, 2014).

But the argument has been made – by the National Audit Office (NAO) – that CRCs may be in a position to break free from the surveillance and risk management agenda which was – remember – imposed by the state through  National Standards and subsequent National Probation Service targets and uniform methods of working. The reason for this break is that PbR is open minded about how the results are delivered, as long as they are delivered. A recent NAO study argued:

‘Payment by Results potentially offers benefits such as innovative solutions to intractable problems. If it can deliver these benefits, then the increased risk and cost may be justified.’ (National Audit Office, 2015)

This is probably combined with the assumption that the voluntary sector, small and medium sized charities, are hopefully going to play a significant role in the CRCs.

Yet the fact is that labour-intensive methods like Photovoice will be competing with technology based surveillance systems like biometric reporting and will require longer and more intensive practitioner training at a time of austerity and slimmed down staffing levels.

The crucial issue is what the CRCs’ definition of rehabilitation will be: keeping people quiet through surveillance or reintegration into employment and community? From a PbR perspective the latter is increasingly unpredictable. The ‘meaningful journeys’ of the Photovoice population, like those entering into meaningful non-criminogenic community relations in the Liverpool study, is predicated upon viable communities with employment opportunities and enhanced life chances. These are beyond the control of the CRCs while cheaper and more predictable surveillance mechanisms are available over the medium term (i.e. the period over which PbR is likely to be measured).

There may be simply a continuation of the mixed economy of Photovoice and similar intensive interventions for more serious offenders and this is likely to be restricted to the National Probation Service while CRCs concentrate on easily manageable and measurable desistance such as those involved in kiosk reporting, techniques which have no uncontrollable costs in terms of lifestyle and community integration.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that CRCs are in competition with each other for potential contract renewal and therefore may be reluctant to share or promote innovative methods with their market competitors to enable them to stay ahead in terms of tendering advantages.

An expanded version of this thought piece will appear as a chapter in a forthcoming book edited by John Lea and Sam King entitled Privatisation and Criminal Justice: recent experience in England and Wales published by Policy Press.


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