What Happened to Probation? Managerialism, Performance & the Decline of Autonomy

Published 16/12/2009
Type Article
Author(s) Pauline Ashworth
Corresponding Authors Pauline Ashworth, Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York

In the last 25 years or so, the concept of ‘performance’ and its concomitant suffixes ‘culture’ and ‘indicators’ have come to dominate discourse surrounding public service policy and practice, as a consequence of a radical shift in the ethos of public sector provision that emerged following the election of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The Probation Service was one of the last public sector agencies to come under the spotlight of public sector reform as, following the scrutiny of the health service, education, social work, it was required to address central issues of accountability, effectiveness and cost. This article examines the effects of this shift on the practice and management of probation over the past quarter of a century or so, particularly in terms its professionalism and organisation. Attention is paid to the ways in which ‘performance’ is understood and interpreted within probation practice. Whilst the focus, especially in terms of the timing, is on the experience of the probation service in England and Wales, it is suggested that the arguments put forward could be generally applicable to other parts of the UK and to systems in other parts of the world where neo-liberalist, market-dominated ideologies have been introduced.