Policy in the Public Sector

There is a useful governmental myth that ‘management’ and ‘policy’ can be divided – politicians can set policy and civil servants manage delivery. The boundary sounds plausible – policy should rightly be within political control in a democratic state. It is a product of choices about which all can legitimately have opinions, however guided by experts. The truth is of course more messy because as with all human activity, there are transactional forces at work. Policy of course has to be applied in circumstances that were not envisaged, and it is never static and can be informed by activities that may have been devised as ‘managerial’. Policy also operates at different levels simultaneously. So it might be legitimately believed that government policy is to reduce re-offending and that any activity that seeks to achieve that aim falls within the realm of managerial implementation. On the other
hand, ‘policy’ often takes a more detailed engagement with how objectives are achieved. It may be policy to reduce re-offending but not to do so in a way that is perceived to be ‘letting offenders off’.

There also may be strong governmental ideologies about how government policy should be implemented – such as an approach that uses payment by results and competition as mechanisms to achieve the high level objective of reduced re-offending.

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Final thoughts
I was pleased to leave my post in the prison. It may be that the wish to become involved in the leadership of therapy in the prison in some way was never going to be realistic. Some would have been able to assert themselves with more effectiveness with the senior therapeutic staff than could I, and they may have as a consequence been able to impact on both the internal world of the prison, and on what I have termed the ‘constructed organisation’. In some ways, I, for a good while felt I had ‘settled for’ ‘knowing my own parish’ both in terms of focussing on those things for which I had clear responsibility – the well being of my team and its work – and in terms of knowing my own strengths and weaknesses – not trying to do what I did not have the ability to do at that time. With hindsight, I suspect that what I was not able to do was make an impact that would have satisfied my vanity but make little difference to the job Probation was there to do.

So many of our fantasies about changing the world seem to operate at the level of the ‘constructed organisation’, the public world in which there is recognition, visible achievement and concrete legacy. It is hard to hold on to the truth made clear so eloquently in George Eliot’s epitaph to Dorothea to which I alluded earlier:
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

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The second ‘must do’, was therefore a framework for supervision that was appropriate to the task in the prison. This was included in the document above as a requirement to attend weekly team and fortnightly individual supervision. Later in my career, it was clear that I was unusual in insisting on such an intensive regime of supervision, monthly supervision being the norm. I regarded this as crucial however because the supervision had to attend to holding staff to account, helping them with
skills development and with case management dilemmas, and providing a context to explore what I could describe as their emotional response to the work and how they managed that response.

In Grendon, where the therapeutic work was mostly undertaken in groups, group supervision seemed important to give staff a direct experience of operating as group members rather than leaders. For all the professional posturing, Grendon did structure itself around the important idea that prisoners could learn from each other, breaking down the top down line of authority. Group supervision was intended to get the team to do likewise and would be based on team members bringing dilemmas and case management issues arising on their wing for their colleagues to discuss and assist. It was specifically not a business meeting – though there was always some tendency to retreat to the safety of business.

Individual supervision was focussed around the member of staff’s experience and emotions. Grendon was particularly catering for personality disorders and it is of the nature of such work that the ‘clients’ have the capability and need to induce in their workers the emotions with which they were having particular difficulty. If staff were not to hide from the emotional experience of the prisoners, they would have to be open to the emotional worlds in which the prisoners lived when committing serious and disturbing crimes. In addition, rather like adolescents with their parents,
prisoners would often have the capacity to find their worker’s vulnerabilities. As I wrote when expressing concern about the broader support systems in the prison (above), it is normal and healthy in these circumstances for workers to be uncertain at times about what they are feeling and thinking.

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The pressure on staff also arose from the uncertainty of what they would face from their field work colleagues in the community. There were times when they would have to speak on behalf of decisions by field colleagues that they thought were misguided. The environment in which probation operated as I have said above, also contributed to these uncertainties – some teams in the field for example would not allocate prisoners to a single officer but hold the cases as team cases, seeing their role as essentially practical. It was hard to engage the field team in these circumstances in work with the journey of change on which the prisoner had embarked in Grendon. A task list from me would not have resolved such a problem – we had to deal with areas of uncertainty, but the important thing is that they were known about, not personal to the officer involved and subject of explicit discussion.

For my team, I decided the pattern of stress and sickness called for a written framework that would help them limit the demands upon them – hence the written documents I have drawn extracts from above. This was not enough however and if it simply took us towards a more defined and restricted role, we would not have been maximising our usefulness in the prison nor dealing with the emotional pressures in a way that would release energy.

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This apparent dilemma is not so much a problem as a fact – prioritisation is not something that can be done in theory and ‘given’ so that staff can do the work; prioritisation is the work if the service is to be personalised and responsive. In some cases, it is not possible to be clear (it was objectively unclear what we should be doing in the hospital wing at Grendon where most prisoners were to ill for release into the community to be an option), and more often than not, it is important simply to be explicit about where flexibility and responsiveness means some uncertainty about priorities and to be clear with staff that in those situations the important principle is that the issues are shared with the manager so that the officer is not carrying the burden of priority setting alone. For example it was sometimes
better the prisoner be told that his problem had been considered and a decision not to prioritise it taken by the organisation than that the officer involved had made a personal decision that may lay them open to accusations of bias.

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Still, at least I could, in looking after my own team, establish some clarity of framework for what they were expected to get up to on the wings. There were two core components of taking care of staff in the context of Grendon – one was establishing some boundaries to what they were expected to do, boundaries that would help them to limit their responsibilities to what was manageable, but that
would not become rigid rules that took away their discretion to respond to the dynamics and needs of the particular wings on which they served.

It is not surprising that ‘boundaries’ are an important issue for work in prisons! Boundaries tend to have their own emotional significance for professions in the criminal justice system. Probation Officers tend to be instinctively suspicious or hostile to rigid boundaries, a hostility it is true that often hides a need for them – as was acted out over the years in the way staff responded to national standards with a combination of hostility and rigid compliance. [Prison staff tend to feel differently –
a colleague of mine told me a story of when he attended an inter-agency group dynamics course. In one task, small groups had to appoint from among their number, a ‘gatekeeper’ who would be the first point of contact with other groups. In my colleague’s group a prison governor was appointed and he immediately got up and locked the door of the room.]

Boundaries were not for us either the walls of the prison or the limits of a task list. But because they were more emotional boundaries and areas of known uncertainty, they posed a significant emotional challenge. All those who work in prisons are familiar with the way in which the prisoner always feels his problem is urgent and that resolutions are all too slow to come. Probation staff who at that time
were doing most of the contact with the outside world, were under constant pressure to separate the urgent from the merely anxious, and it is easy for the anxiety to transmit itself to the probation worker so that they become paralysed by everything being a priority. Some staff pass this pressure on to the manager and demand that the manager sets clear priorities in the form of tasks that must
be done and those that can be put to one side. My document would fall short for some who make such a demand because whilst it sets some framework, it is not a simple task list.

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The context nationally was difficult however, and I was rowing against the tide. The idea of ‘therapy’ as an appropriate response to offenders was decidedly out of fashion. We had not even reached the point at which the What Works ideology was reinstating therapy as accredited cognitive behavioural programmes. The ‘non treatment paradigm’ was still ruling and probation officers saw themselves as
providing more practical services regarding welfare benefits, social skills, accommodation etc. They tended not to see themselves as having therapeutic skills and so were even more inclined to defer to Grendon’s reputation and to regard themselves as peripheral to treatment. There was also at this time the emergence of more explicit priority setting at national and area level – in many ways for
good reasons just as was occurring in my review of work at Springhill discussed above. SNOP (statement of national priorities) supported by SLOP (statement of local priorities) were the frameworks for the times, but these documents tended to relegate prison through care to lower priority.