Independent Advisor on making Probation work
- proponent of Modern Probation Theory
Also: Since 1/2/2021, Strategic Director for
National Approved Premises Association CIC - napacic.org
Published before 2004
Whereas most of my post-2004 material is about public protection or inspection business, other subjects such as offender employment or youth custody feature more strongly in my earlier writings. For the onetime Association of Chief Officers of Probation I was the national Lead Officer for Offender Employment from 1994-2001, and I completed a part-time Research Fellowship at the University of Oxford in 1996 - see publication further below.
However, the first document below covers a key aspect of my work as Chief Probation Officer for the then Berkshire Probation Service - an early illustration of how Probation can become measurably effective.
The documents, with an explanation of them, contained in the PSF file opposite, illustrate how an early version of my Three Purposes of Probation appeared and was worked in real life by Berkshire Probation Service (BPS) staff during my 30 months as their Chief Probation Officer. Though some details would need to change now in the light of subsequent experience, the core concept worked then and still could now:
This was a case of practitioners using their own judgement to achieve prescribed outcomes (‘proxy’ outcomes arising from good quality Probation practice that lead to reduced reoffending), and then the key data aggregated into ‘target measures’ of organisational performance.
In 1996 I was seconded part-time for nine months to be a Probation Fellow at the University of Oxford's Centre for Criminological Research. My project involved examining 739 Probation files in eleven different areas of England, Wales and Northern Ireland to assess the then ability of Probation to get offenders into work. In due course it was published in March 1998 with the title: Increasing the Employability of Offenders: An Inquiry into Probation Service Effectiveness.
The chief conclusion was that where probation services made interventions aimed at increasing the employability of unemployed offenders, they were able to DOUBLE the proportion of persons who gained a job. Nevertheless in most cases no such interventions were made (even though 'intervention' and 'non-intervention' cases were broadly similar) - therefore I argued that more interventions would lead to more job starts and thus reduced reoffending.
My 1991 MPhil thesis, entitled Waving or Drowning? A Phenomenology of the work of Senior Probation Officers, describes how a range of experienced and varied frontline managers in Probation perceived and made sense of their work in the late 1980s, at a time of major but varying expectations – notably about what was expected by others - of that role. I found that these participants felt that they were open to change, development and improvement, but often also felt that their reality was different from that of their more senior colleagues.
Background: I had completed, in 1984, in my own time alongside my fulltime work, an MA in Historical Studies at the then Bristol Polytechnic, focusing on Business History. This had stimulated in me an interest in organisations, and in the question of relating structure to effectiveness, and how this question might be examined in the world of criminal justice in general, and of Probation in particular. In addition, with me having previously abandoned in 1971 any aspirations to a career as a professional academic, my new (1984) MA also stimulated in me the tantalising possibility that I might attain a PhD after all, if I could find a suitable project that could be undertaken alongside my fulltime work. The discouragement I received from my work colleagues and bosses – since they felt I was showing lack of commitment to the job – only tended to reinforce my determination to prove that I could do both job and project successfully.
But I was only partially successful. With no support from work, and therefore no access to organisational material, I had to do the work demonstrably in ‘my own time’ (fortunately the annual leave allowance was singularly generous then), and the ‘research material’ had to be accessible on a personal rather than an official basis. The solution, largely devised for me by Stephen Fineman of the University of Bath School of Management, was this qualitative study of dozen Senior Probation Officers (whom I knew personally). This would ‘only’ qualify for an MPhil, but there was the possibility that as circumstances evolved the project might develop into something more official, and hence more ambitious, and thus for something at PhD level. However, in the event, I was never able to develop it further, but I was at least able to complete the MPhil, undertaking the research (33 lengthy interviews recorded and written up) and most of the academic background from 1987 to 1989. I completed the thesis writing from 1989 to 1990 after promotion to Assistant Chief and moving house to Berkshire. I remain grateful to my former SPO colleagues (as well as to my tutor) who enabled me to do this.
The title of my late-1980s paper, Sentenced to Dental Work? – a Fable, was a direct reference to a 1978 paper entitled Sentenced to Social Work?, which had been written by five senior managers from Hampshire, West Sussex, South West London, and Kent Probation Services. The first of these alphabetically had been Malcolm Bryant (who in 1989 was to become my immediate boss in Berkshire), so the authorship of the paper “STSW?” was always known as “Bryant et al”. There had also been a followup paper in 1984 by John Coker, the senior of the two Hampshire managers, reviewing how ideas from their original paper had worked out in practice. My paper might seem an obscure oddity now (perhaps it was then!), both in style and content, densely referencing both long-term and then-current issues. So I have prefaced it now with a rather lengthy introduction, to try to make it intelligible to any 21st century reader who might want to know what the ‘1980s me’ was trying to say.
[The 'DentalOrig' pdf is just a scan of the original published article.]
Meanwhile, two articles of mine had appeared in the March 1988 Probation Journal. One was a requested book review of a study of management by objectives (MBO); in it, although I shared some of the author’s criticisms of how MBO had sometimes been implemented, I was more positive than she was about the potential benefit of this approach.
The other piece was a very shortened summary of a large quantitative analysis of c2000 Youth Custody ‘prisoners’ (YCPs) across the then South-West Prison Region. In the latter part of my secondment to Usk Youth Custody Centre (YCC) from 1983-6, I had jointly with my Probation counterparts in the other four YCCs planned and implemented a survey of the background and previous history of each YCP on arrival, and then on release, during the 18 months from January 1986 to June 1987 (I had moved to the Newport office by then). Due to our dispersed locations, we found that – thanks to the advice of Colin Roberts of the University of Oxford – logistically it was more effective to use ‘Cope-Chat’ cards to record and analyse our data than to try to computerise the entries. (None of us had direct computer access at that time.) For the uninitiated, these were cards, larger than postcards, with holes nearer the edges that could be ‘clipped’ to indicate specified variables. One could then use needles, similar to knitting needles, to pull out from the mass one or more cards that lacked the same variable(s). It needed only a little patience to assemble sets and subsets of data.
By applying this method we got to a lot of detail – written up without personal identities on my Amstrad 8512 at home, and then circulated to Chief Probation Officers and Directors of Social Services across the South-West Prison Region of that time – and this short South West Youth Custody Survey article summarises only some brief headline findings.
One of my notably obscure claims to fame is that the very first time Probation Journal put a picture on its cover it was to illustrate an article I had written.
I wrote my third PJ article in three years - but my first on the subject of youth custody - while I was a Senior Probation Officer at a Youth Custody Centre (Usk in Wales) on the subject of whether the 1982 CJ Act had led to an 'explosion' in the numbers of young people in custody.
The previous year, I had entitled my second ever published article: Organisations: Even More Interesting than Shovels. This arose from my thinking about the two prisons I was working at (Erlestoke and Usk) while writing my MA dissertation about the Great Western Railway - yes, really.
I went on from this to write two more articles for Probation Journal on the subject of organisations, strategy and structure, the second of which was rejected. But I now note with some pleasure that this one, published in June 1986 as Strategy, Structure and all that Jazz, showed some early appreciation that Probation had more than one purpose to achieve.
The first article that I ever had published appeared in Probation Journal in 1982, a year before I was successful in getting elected to the Editorial Board of that august journal. I was by then an experienced main-grade Probation Officer, also with an interest in football, and I'd been getting fed up with people who I felt could talk a good job but not actually do it in practice themselves. Drawing on the opposite syndrome, exemplified by John Cleese performing in a Monty Python sketch as an incoherent footballer undergoing a post-match interview, I had entitled it "Well, Brian, I hit the ball first time and there it was in the back of the net", although the editor had not unreasonably shortened this to 'Well Brian'. [The 'PJ' file is a scan of the original Probation Journal page.]
Admittedly it is a vanity on my part to post here an essay I wrote as a Trainee Probation Officer (student) and then I recently refound. But despite the dated language at some points it pleases me now that at this early stage I was in a nuanced argument advocating a 'scientific method' - a continuing interaction between hypotheses and evidence - and identifying psychology as the most scientific of the social sciences. This was my answer to the question: Is social work an art or a science?