Organisation and management: a changing agenda

From: 'Probation: Working for Justice', ed Ward et al, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press 2002


In the previous chapter John Raine has shown how the government has applied its ‘modernisation’ agenda to the criminal justice system. This chapter looks specifically at the changes in the organisation and management of the probation service and asks what style of management has been designed for the service. It does not take the modernisation agenda as its starting point and argues that the changes since 1997 are the extension of a process begun by previous Home Secretaries.

It analyses the management style for the newly organised service and asks what is the likelihood of success for the service within the centralised structure and processes adopted. The Home Office does not have an unblemished record of management achievements: the Prison service is run in a way that is very similar to the new arrangements for probation and has proved notoriously troublesome to manage to produce a uniformly quality service.

Which management model?

            One problem facing anyone designing a management system in the public sector is that the tasks and the professions and occupations involved have a great variety. Public sector activities range from very high to very low discretion, risk is very variable, confidence in the effectiveness of particular practices is uneven. The political saliency is also very variable and affects the degree to which politicians want to be in control or be seen to be in control.


            Because of this variety, it is unlikely that a standard set of solutions will be either easily implemented or successful. The post 1997 government adopted a set of management and governance principles that were applied in many different contexts. The principles presented were those identified by Raine: a focus on outcomes, evidence-based, cost effectiveness, joined-up and consultative. The principles underlying the modernisation efforts include a distrust of professionals, a desire for standardisation and centralisation, numerical targets for everything, heavy reliance on audit and inspection as control mechanisms and threats to replace poorly performing managers.

Controlling the’professionals’

Changed mission

            All politicians have periods of frustration with the departments and services over which they nominally rule. From 1980 onwards, successive Conservative governments tried to take power and influence way from professionals, mainly by imposing management structures to control them. General management and then markets were introduced in the NHS, a national curriculum and stricter inspection in the school system, quality instruments for teaching and research in the Universities, the introduction of privatisation and competition in many local government services and the prison service.


The extra emphasis on measurable targets that the Labour government brought to their first term of office gave a precision to the causes of frustration. The short list of promises in the manifesto for the 1997 election grew into thousands of targets through Public Service Agreements and targets agreed in agencies’ business plans, corporate plans and other control documents. Not only were targets established but league tables were published to compare how individual units, such as schools and hospitals, were performing.


Assuming that data can be collected accurately and honestly, specific targets make politicians vulnerable if they are not reached. The natural response is to blame the professionals and the labour government was no exception to this rule. The Prime Minister famously referred to the ‘scars on his back’ from his dealings with public sector professionals (in that case the BMA) and the ‘forces of conservatism’ among the professionals and other workers in the public sector. The whole ‘modernisation’ campaign was presented as if public services were hopelessly out of date: local authorities were described as having structures and processes from the 19th century, the NHS as not having changed since it was founded. Professionals were part of the old ways to be swept aside by the new. What this meant in relation to management was that steps had to be taken to bring the professionals under control.


            In the case of probation this was made especially hard by the fact that since the purpose and values of the service were disputed between the Home Secretary and the Home Office on one side and the probation officers on the other. The dispute was reflected in Michael Howard’s time by public confrontation between ACPO and the Home Secretary, serious reluctance to participate in electronic tagging and during Mr Straw’s time in a dispute of the name and more importantly the purpose of the service. Apart from the name, the profession mostly lost – ‘advise, assist and befriend’ went the way of Clause IV and was replaced by punishment in the community. Social work values were out and interventions to punish and reform, based on cognitive behaviourism, were in. The clash was in practice less stark than this, since many probation officers’ practice had been developing the sorts of programmes approved by the new regime. The change was recognition that the 1907 Act values had officially been replaced.


Even the most messianic manager would see that as a challenge. It is one thing to improve management in a situation where all the participants agree on the purposes and the generally accepted methods to achieve them. It is quite another to manage when some members of the organisation have different ideas not only about what works but what the aim is. One of the problems in managing the prison service is that in many cases the prison officers have different and deep rooted ideas about the purposes of the prison service as well as how it should be run.


A basic characteristic of a profession is that its members are autonomous, their working practices emerge from their profession and not from the organisation they work for or in. What co-ordination or supervision is required is done through mutual adjustment and conversations between people who have equal or close professional status. If politicians or ‘the management’ want professionals to do something different they have to find alternatives to the professional method of supervision. There are three options: change and standardise the ‘inputs’, the processes or the outputs or outcomes.


            It is at least debatable whether probation was a profession in the sense that the training and self-managing standards standardised practice to such a degree that the profession ran itself. The DipSW/ CQSW qualifications could be argued to have provided a pre-professional training but many aspects of the job had t be learned though practice under supervision. Supervision was always a mixture of managerial supervision, concerned with matters such as how much work has been completed and how workloads are distributed and professional supervision. The latter contained elements of training in how to do the job, not just checking.


So, the question is whether the abandonment of the social work qualification as an essential entry requirement in England and Wales constitutes a rejection of standardised ‘inputs’ or characteristics of the workforce. If so, standardisation of inputs would have to be replaced with standardisation of some other aspect of the work. If not, then the new management arrangements can be seen as correcting the gap left by the fact that training did not produce a universally accepted set of ways of working and of standards that could be effectively maintained through a system of professional supervsion.


            ‘What works’ (see chapter 4) provides one answer to the problem of standardisation. If probation officers cannot be relied upon to adopt those practices that produce results, then there will be a national set of practices. It is a risky management idea, since it puts all its money on there being a set of programmes that will be transferable from where they were developed to every other part of England and Wales and, perhaps more importantly, that no other practices will be allowed. Apart from that, of course, the process of accreditation is slow and it will be a long while before there are sufficient approved programmes. In any case, ‘what works’ is looking for solutions for the long-term and therefore longitudinal studies have to be followed through to determine the real impact.


The ‘Correctional Policy Framework put out by the Home Office put ‘what works at the centre: “Correctional policy is driven by "What Works" principles. This means that offending behaviour programmes should involve planned interventions over a specified period of time which can be shown to change positively attitudes, beliefs, behaviour and social circumstances. Usually, they will be characterised by a sequence of activities designed to achieve clearly defined objectives based on a theoretical model or empirical evidence. There should also be a capacity to replicate the programme with different offenders to achieve the same results.” [1]


            ‘What works’ was not new but was the continuation of an older initiative ‘ The Effective Practice Initiative’ renamed by the incoming government.


            Another, earlier attempt at standardisation was the ‘National Standards’, launched in 1995, which simply set out in some detail what probation officers were supposed to do. Less ambitious than ‘What Works’, the standards are simply a rule-book standing in place of reliance on good practice. The rules are about what should be done and by when and can therefore be monitored by counting. They refer mainly to report writing and following the correct procedures for orders, rather than for the programmes that ‘what works’ is concerned with.


            Together the two initiatives represent an attempt to standardise work practices, because of a lack of confidence in the standardisation of inputs, especially the skills and knowledge of the practitioners.

Unified management structure

The pre-April 2001 service was organised as 54 probation areas, linked to and partly funded by local authorities. The areas had a governing body and a chief officer locally accountable, although also linked to the Home Office’s C6 division. The Inspectorate was always an important part of the accountability structure.


On April 2nd 2001 the National Probation Service was launched for England and Wales. The C6 division of the Home Office became the Probation Unit, a new chief, Eithne Wallis, was appointed head of the service as were local and national boards and a set of area managers. The boundaries of the 42 new areas were coterminous with police authority boundaries, in an effort to make collaboration between the two services easier.


            The link with local authorities was broken and the new structure is a unified, hierarchical service operating in England and Wales. Accountability of the service is through the Home Office to the Home Secretary.

European Business Excellence Model

Soon after she was appointed, Eithne Wallis announced that the service would work towards European Foundation for Quality Management accreditation and set the service a target score of 700 within 5 years. The EQFM model covers nine aspects of management, divided into ‘enablers’- leadership, policy and strategy, people, partnerships and resources and processes and ‘results’ – people results, customer results, society results and key performance results. The winner of the EFQM award for large organisations in 2000 was Nokia. The first public sector winner was the Inland Revenue Account Office in Cumbernauld. A target score of 700 is ambitious and shows a commitment to quality management but not to a narrowly defined approach as the EFQM allows a variety of approaches within each of its nine criteria.

The European Foundation for Quality Management Model


[Figure 15.1 The EFQM model here]

The framework for the EFQM model is shown in Figure 15.1. Aspects that will of particular interest to those who work in the service will be first, where the leadership comes from. Past experience has indicated a battle for leadership in various departments among the Minister, the Permanent Secretary and the Head of the Service. Another matter of great interest will be where policy and strategy are made and in what sort of style and how innovation and learning can take place. The desire for a highly centralised service implies a model of policy and decision making and learning based on the idea that all information should be passed upwards for decisions about strategy and for judgements about the best way forward. It also implies that innovation and learning are highly centralised. While the EFQM model makes no explicit judgement about how these things should be managed, it will be interesting to see whether such a large organisation will be judged as a quality organisation with such a degree of centralisation of management.

More Staff

Probation officers’ workload has increased greatly. Figure 15.2 shows the number of probation orders and the number of probation staff from 1981 to 1999. While the control over their work was tightened through the National Standards the volume of work produced long working hours and a stressful environment.

[Figure 15.2 Probation orders and staff here]


This increase in workload was the main feature of probation officers’ working life. Perhaps the most significant feature of the newly established national service was the announcement of the projected recruitment of 4,500 extra staff over three years, including 1,500 probation officers, 2,500 assistants and 500 support staff. [2] It was later announced that there would be an additional 3000 staff in the first year of the new service. Given that the new qualification requires two years’ training it is likely that the early recruits will not be at qualified probation officer level.


The high-level ‘outcome’ target for the service is that there will be a 5% reduction in the re-conviction rates for offenders supervised by the service by 2004. The old service had adopted 9 Key Performance Indicators it its three-year plan. There is also a national target for the time taken for young offenders to be tried, part of which concerns the time taken by the service to write reports on the arrested people [3] . There are also targets for the recruitment of people from ethic minorities.


It is not yet clear what will be the consequences of failing to meet targets. In the case of Executive Agencies, targets change regularly, not always to make them harder to achieve in subsequent years. While there is no suggestion that the 5% reduction in re-conviction will be changed, what will happen if the target is not met? Will interim achievement be published? What will happen if the trend is in the wrong direction?

Information Management

The service has had a sorry history of information management and information and communication technology, along with other government departments. The National Probation Service Information Systems Strategy was to be implemented partly through an integrated case record system CRAMS. Unfortunately CRAMS joined the list of central government experiences with the IT industry which resulted in delays, cost over-runs and failure to meet the original specification. The National Audit Office report on the procurement process diagnosed a lack of leadership and continuity of staffing and a lack of resources as the main reasons for the failure. The report also urged the Home Office to persist in completing the system since it is essential for the success of the new probation service.


Information management will be an essential tool in the new organisation. Not only will it allow people to do their job but it will also enable managers to see whether they are meeting their targets.


The management of the new service have taken on a big task. The governance arrangements are new, the boards having replaced the old probation committees. The management will need to work hard t establish the role and ways of working of the boards. The old network of Chief Probation Officers with their dual accountabilities to the locality and the Home Office has been replaced by a group of 42 Area managers accountable to the new chief. Many of the experienced CPOs have taken the opportunity to retire or pursue their careers elsewhere. Management methods will have to be developed for the new, unified service. The creaky IT systems will have to be completed and made to respond to the needs of the service. New staff have to recruited to meet the greatly expanded workload and the newly qualified among the professionals will have a new qualification, the Diploma in Probation Studies.


The most obvious risk in the new set up is that the management arrangements might not be adequate to deliver the ambitious targets. At the time of writing it is too early to assess the likely effectiveness of the unified command structure. The Home Office has a mixed record of operating command structures. The prison service is organised in a similar way to probation and has serious problems in trying to control what happens in individual prisons, in a direct hierarchy from prison governors, through area managers to the Head of the Prison Service. A thorough and outspoken inspectorate backs up the hierarchy. Almost all of the features of the new probation service management arrangements are reproductions of the Prison Service.


            HMIP has repeatedly identified the turnover of prison governors as a problem for the Prison Service. The new management of probation needs to make sure that the same does not happen at the area level of the new service.


            Another recurring theme of HMIP reports is the growth of targets sent from Prison Service HQ to the prisons, some contained in business, corporate and strategic plans and some attached to initiatives. The targets are part of a stream of instructions issued from various levels of the hierarchy. Despite these, reports indicate that individual prisons manage to develop and maintain their own cultures, often negative with respect to the proclaimed goals of the service, that are impervious to both management and inspection.


            The other main risk is the heavy dependence on the ‘what works’ programme as the basis for service development. One commentator has remarked:

‘The last we can do at this stage is to realize that what we are undertaking is a huge criminological experiment…’ [4] . The dependence has two effects: local development of services for local circumstances will now be seen as a research and development role for the national service; work that is specifically local, whether in the form of programmes or individual work will not receive national accreditation and will therefore not be permitted.


            This is a very centralised definition of evidence-based practice. It is similar to the operation of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence in the NHS, in that what counts as evidence is nationally collected and interpreted information on the results of particular treatments or actions. The medical analogy is not perfectly replicated here, in that the accreditation programme is based only on small local trials not and equivalent to national epidemiological data. Various doctors have complained that the NICE approach devalues local experience and individual knowledge of ‘what works’ for individual patients. In the probation case, the argument is similar in that local probation officers can no longer rely on their own experience and initiative, unless it is to start a programme which may then get national accreditation.


            There are practical problems with a national accreditation system as a policy and management tool: the process takes a long time and will in future be required to changes in response to changing patterns of crime. In the past, local services have produced for example, car projects to respond to outbreaks of TWOC [5] on their patch. It future, the increase in a particular form of crime will presumably have to wait for a pilot to be run, the evaluation done and permission given.


            The third risk of reliance on ‘what works’ is timescale. Whereas the NHS equivalent of accreditation relies on both short-term recovery statistics and longer term morbidity and mortality data, long term statistics on re-conviction (never mind re-offending) in response to different punishment in the community programmes will not be available before the end of the first re-conviction reduction targets have been met. The gamble, therefore is that the Panel will make good enough judgements to direct the resources into programmes that produce the desired results. Part of the judgement will inevitably be ‘professional’ in the sense that it will reply on experience of what has worked elsewhere as well as what works in the schemes being accredited. Surely, this was the reason for employing panel members from overseas?


            The final major risk is that the various national systems that the service now relies upon do not work as well as they should. The information strategy is the most obvious one, but there are various others, such as the system for finding places in secure units, that used to rely on local contact networks and now are managed through national systems. The gamble is that what worked reasonably well at local level can be transferred to a national, centralised system.



Society places great reliance on the Probation service. The recent changes in the organisation and management of the service are the end point of a long journey of nationalisation and standardisation. The methods that have been devised to manage the service include a range of standardisations of processes and programmes and a move away from standardisation of the background and qualifications of the staff. They create a unified, hierarchical service and a set of management instruments, including targets and inspections. There is an ambition to overlay these processes with the European Business Excellence model.


            It is an ambitious project especially as the changes in organisation and management have been introduced after a change in the mission of the service to one of punishment in the community. Many of the values and traditions of the old service will therefore not be available to the new hierarchy of managers and their boards.


            The task has been taken on in parallel with the Home Office’s ambition to bring about change in the prison service as part of the same agenda of reducing re-conviction rates. Prisons will be called upon to do more re-education and rehabilitation work with inmates.


One cannot help feeling a certain irony that much the same management structures and processes will be used to encourage the prison service to do more rehabilitation as have been devised to get the probation service to do more punishment.

[1] ‘The Correctional Policy Framework: Effective execution of the sentences of the courts so as to reduce re-offending and protect the public.’ (Home Office 1999)

[2] Home Office announcement 21 September 2000

[3] Objective V of the Criminal Justice System Public Service Agreement

[4] Simon Merrington and Steve Stanley, ‘Doubts about what works initiative’, Probation Journal, 47, 4, 2000, pp. 272-275

[5] ‘taking without owner’s consent’