Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

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

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

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

Article excerpt

The introduction of explicit performance targets and the more general performance culture into public sector policy over the past few decades represented a radical or 'seismic' shift (Dorey, 2005; McLaughlin et al, 2001: Carter et al, 1992) in policy thinking and public practice. This is not to suggest that the idea of 'performance'--or doing a good job--was alien to people working within the public sector before the 1980s, but it was something which practitioners tended to take for granted, a self-evident consequence of behaving professionally and of taking responsibility for upholding the values and aims of your agency. (McWilliams, 1983; Boswell, 1985; Eadie, 2000) According to Peter Dorey (2005) it was believed at the time that 'policy failures could be attributed to excessive or unwarranted government interference' which could only be redeemed by 'rolling back the state' (2005: 215). At the same time, rhetoric notwithstanding, Dorey continues:

   ... in many public services, the state actually became more
   directive and intrusive, via various reforms, targets, performance
   indicators, audits and funding mechanisms ... (which aimed to) ...
   restore the authority of government (2005:217).

Consequently, in recent decades, increasing emphasis has been placed upon demonstrating professionalism and responsibility, upon proving the effectiveness of one's practice, and accounting for the decisions made. Few would argue against such aims but, for many working in the public sector, they begged a number of questions: how could such abstract concepts and processes be rendered concrete enough to indicate good or bad performance? Within the probation service, for instance, the suggestion that what they did could be reduced to measurable and clearly definable performance indicators was anathema to many probation officers. The very nature of the work, which involves 'transformation' through understanding and addressing the individuality, the diversity and uniqueness of offenders (Garland, 2001; Nellis, 2005; Hough et al, 2006), throws into question the usefulness of some of the standardized and measurable indicators of probation performance. For example, how can the effectiveness of the time taken to develop a working relationship with an offender be measured? What does 'effectiveness' actually mean in these circumstances--reducing or stopping offending, or something more subtle such as providing a source of understanding and respect for the first time in an offender's life that might one day lead to a questioning of behaviour and attitude? Can the drive toward a measurable concept of performance take account of the latter? If not, what does it mean for practice?

In this article, I propose to address some of these questions from the point of view of a former probation practitioner, but also in the light of my subsequent experience of teaching and training probation officers. My argument is that the impact of the central government's imposition upon the probation service of market forces and business models, incorporating market-driven terms such as cost-effectiveness, efficiency, measurable outcomes and performance indicators, served to distract probation officers and their managers from probation's central purpose, to distort its priorities, and in some measure at least to alienate an otherwise committed workforce. This is not to say that some changes were not needed, but that the changes that were imposed turned the probation service from its role as a potential 'bridge' between the state and the criminal to another arm of the state's control and suppression of offenders. Probation, having long been criticized as a 'soft option' (Brake & Hale, 1992; Hughes & Lewis, 1998; Worrall & Hoy, 2005) was to become 'harder', tougher and more standardized in its delivery. This is not a new debate, but it is one that deserves further consideration in the light of developments in the probation service. …

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