Tragedy and Farce in Organisational Upheavals for Probation: What Next?

Published 15/03/2016
Type Article
Author(s) Paul Senior
Corresponding Authors Paul Senior, Professor of Probation Studies, Sheffield Hallam University

Is this an unlikely scenario, circa 2011? Government hiring a consultant in organisational and personnel management and challenging them to:

  • Map out a way of changing the entire organisational matrix of probation. This is your brief:
  • Undo the governance arrangements completely and create a bifurcated and multiple ownership model using a range of companies with no experience of running probation services
  • As it worked so badly in 2001 when 17 chiefs were retired at a stroke losing the leadership skills of a service at a time when a new national organisation was created, repeat this tragedy as farce in 2014 so aim at, at least, 13 CEOs leaving the Trusts as the new organisations are created thus decimating leadership
  • Create new arrangements which will downgrade the skills of its workforce, create confusion over what is required to be a probation practitioner and then squeeze funds to the extent that redundancy, low morale and sickness escalates and the core of probation, its workers, are decimated, set against each other and disillusioned.”

And yet this is just what has unfolded in the most farcical episode in probations’ rich, if turbulent, history of organisational change. The changes initiated by Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) are maybe more disruptive than previous changes but there have been plenty of changes since the steady state of 1970s and 1980s. For most of the last forty years, probation has been a local public service managed via a variety of Probation Committees (magistrates initially as the employers) and then Boards with a changing relationship with its courts, local authorities, the region and the centre. At one time the local authority also contributed to part of its budget, though the extent of local oversight was limited as direction has always come from the centre. This gathered pace when probation was projected ‘centre stage’ in the early 1990s and a more managed service was required. Boards became more diversified to include representatives from business and finance and the occasional academic. However, the funding requirements, controlled by the centre, ensured increasing compliance to central direction, ultimately increasing such control so that a National Probation Service was created in 2001. It was an opportunity for influence and recognition for the distinctive work of the probation service but which ultimately failed. A closer relationship with a more dominant partner, the prison service, a succession of lack lustre national leaderships plus a submissive attitude to the demands of  government saw probation drift from its core ideals to a weak and divided organisational arrangement lacking rationale, connectedness and a sense of direction. The 2001 version of the NPS did not last and another organisational shift brought Probation Trusts, increased local engagement through Local Criminal Justice Boards and Community Safety Partnerships, regional bodies and enhanced working partnerships with the police and with the third sector. As we reached 2012 the Trusts were regarded, by the government’s own measures, as in good health and had become the first public organisation to be awarded the ultimate business kitemark, the British Quality Foundation’s 2011 Gold Medal for Excellence Award.

Now just four years later we have governance models which are predicated on survival and ensuring the new Community Rehabilitation Companies at least break even. Many of the CEOs who started the CRCs before ownership was transferred to a strange band of catering, workfare, cleaning and security companies have now gone or been superseded by senior managers from the owners. There is no continuity between the different providers and less and less organic links with the new National Probation Service despite originally sharing buildings and having a common IT language. Now many models prevail and communication has become difficult.

Leadership is a difficult issue to get right. Too often the balance between management and leadership is blurred. In 2001 there was a strong move to centralise probation policy and practice and make all local areas dance to a new choreography (National Probation Service, 2001). For the new director faced with a brain drain of 17 Chiefs, amongst which were some of its most innovative thinkers and leaders, an administrative model prevailed and the new chiefs were managers working on behalf of a target-driven centre. This did not work well and as successive central leaders failed to resist the prisonisation of probation local leaders began to emerge. The new Trusts arrived with a younger, more female dominated leadership of the 35 Trusts which through its representative organ, the Probation Chiefs Association (PCA), began to drive forward a new agenda. Evidence showed it was performing well and innovating around such issues as Integrated Offender Management (IOM), domestic violence, sex offenders, accredited programmes, desistance agendas, the Offender Engagement Programme, etc. PCA as a fledging organisation, was beginning to assert itself and give a voice, often a female voice, to the views of its leadership in ways which approached the earlier more vocal ACOP in the recent past. Even if you took the ultimate government measure of success, reducing re offending, it was demonstrable on MoJ’s own statistics that being on probation in the Trusts did help reduce reoffending (MoJ Analytical Services, 2013). During the early TR debates, this leadership was visible and articulated its dismay at the dismantling of the successful Trust arrangements. However, the corporate silencing which was imposed by the MoJ quietened that voice to a whisper and it felt that at that moment the leadership lost its power to influence the changes. Indeed many faced with the uncomfortable job of making TR work either resigned or were quietly invited to do so. Once again the leadership was decimated and as the new arrangements emerged, it did so with a much less experienced set of individuals, nervous about their futures whether as a result of their civil servant status in the NPS or the insecurity of their future in the new CRCs. The voice of that new leadership has been largely silent.

Ironically the review of research initiated by the MoJ (MoJ Analytical Services, 2013) which drew on the good practice highlighted above suggested the following four characteristics should be at the centre of the new organisational arrangements:

• Skilled, trained practitioners;
• Well-sequenced, holistic approaches;
• Services and interventions delivered in a joined-up, integrated manner;
• Need for high quality services. (Senior, 2013)

I posed this question rhetorically in a blog concerning these aspirations in 2013:

’High quality services? Where can we possibly find a public service with top quality kite mark awards, reductions of up to 10 per cent in reoffending from community orders, a highly trained and motivated staff group, delivering integrated holistic services in cooperation with voluntary and private providers? Is this why we are seeking new providers? Wait, these criteria are met by an organisation in existence – probation trusts. So it makes sense to rip them in two, give it to providers with aspirations but little track record.’ (Senior, 2013)

If the farce of diminishing the leadership was enough to impact on probation, it is a further tragedy that the organisational changes have wrought an existential crisis at the heart of the probation profession. This is discussed elsewhere in this volume (see Worrall et al.) which interrogates the impact on the occupational culture; here it is sufficient to note the warnings from voices rising above the parapet to reveal a sorry tale of the disestablishment of the Probation ideal. It can be summarised emotionally as confrontational, demoralising and divisive. In practical terms the status of probation officer has been diminished, particularly but not exclusively, in the CRCs; colleagues have been set against each other as they work for different organisations; communications have been made more complex and IT systems have proliferated without positive interconnected outcomes. At the time of writing, redundancies, sometimes as much as 40 per cent, are likely to be implemented! Training arrangements within the CRCs are undermined and practice is often being devolved to PSO equivalents in both NPS through E3 (NPS, 2016) and in the various models of the CRCs. There are, nevertheless, examples of good practice across the country, maybe in spite of rather than because of the arrangements. The future of probation as a profession is threatened by these changes yet skilled, trained practitioners were at the heart of the research evidence quoted above (MoJ Analytical Services, 2013). One voice picked at random from Twitter sums up the crisis:

‘#probation fast becoming a concept, not an institution/public service NPS enforcement and CRCs failed business.’ (@sadSPO, 5th March 2016)

140 characters says it all. The profession is under threat.

So, above are insights into the changes, below are some of the fears and hopes expressed at the conversation in Kendal.

• Commodification of emotional labour (see Knight et al. in this volume);
• Individualist, oppressive, competitive environments;
• Silos will be created with no common language to ease communication;
• Individual CRCs will be amalgamated for the needs of efficiency thus breaking local links even more;
• Loss of expertise/local community links following abolition of trusts. Where is the link with courts in CRCs?;
• Management becomes procedural not professional;
• Commercial imperatives are prioritised at the expense of best practice;
• The mantra becomes low cost service for maximum profit;
• Workforce no longer expects to stay in probation for life – short term work then move on;
• New managerialism defines training, then practice, of managers.

• Freed of National Standards this will release the creative potential of CRCs;
• Mobilising the creativity of people to manage change; historically probation staff are resilient;
• Will become more outward looking, the profession of probation expanding to include not just direct probation staff but all working in community rehabilitation and community justice including third tier organisations;
• Creative new way of managing in the changed structure;
• Strong confident leaders who can communicate the meaning and purpose of probation to the public and politicians;
• Strong occupational cultures regardless of diverse organisational contexts buttressed by an independent voice for the profession, the Probation Institute.

The future of a recognisable probation institution is at risk given the organisational changes, arguably more invasive than previous attempts. Bifurcation of delivery means that integration of services for the individual service user is threatened. The deskilling of qualified Probation staff is a product of where an individual was placed in the reorganisation and not any assessment of their skills and knowledge. This threatens the professional confidence, independence and creative potential of probation staff, an integral part of delivering the always difficult role of probation. The need for effective leadership is compromised by the bifurcated arrangements. Perhaps it is prescient to speculate that when further organisational changes arrive, they may well seek to undo some of the consequences of this farcical and tragic organisational transformation.


MoJ Analytical Services (2013) Transforming Rehabilitation: a summary of evidence on reducing reoffending. MoJ.
National Probation Service for England and Wales and the Home Office Communication Directorate (2001) A New Choreography: An Integrated Strategy for the National Probation Service for England and Wales. Strategic Framework 2001 – 2004.
National Probation Service (2016) E3 Blueprint.
Senior, P. (2013) Risky and fundamentally misguided. Blog. Available at:
Accessed 09/03/2016.