Reviewing ‘What Works?’: A Social Perspective

Published 15/03/2006
Type Article
Author(s) Trish McCulloch
Corresponding Authors Trish McCulloch, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Dundee

The probation service in England and Wales has undergone massive change during the late 20th and early 21st centuries to become a National Service. This paper examines the wider social and political contexts in which such change has occurred. The reconfiguration of probation is argued to reflect the transition from a society governed through a political rationality of welfarism to one reflecting the tenets of neo-liberalism. A key shift has been in the massive purchase made in the service by managerial strategies and tactics which have been legitimated by their incorporation of the “What Works” research findings into the role of management. Such findings are argued to be provisional rather than universally applicable principles, and the meta-analyses from which they are derived are discussed in terms of their shortcomings and tendency to collapse rather than extract, detail. The “What Works” principles have been used as a mechanism to effect change in a service that hitherto had resisted various incursions by elements of the New Public Management. The key principles of effectiveness are depicted as being resonant with the notion of the rational-choice actor which provides the core model of individual behaviour within neo-liberal politics and which marks a disjunction with probation’s older association with issues of social justice and disadvantage