Management ideologies in the Probation Service 10

  1. In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” (Wilde)

In so far as anything is certain in the world of social work, it would appear that individual personality is the key variable for effectiveness in work with clients. The particular technique or theoretical approach seems to be of relatively little importance. The Probation Service seems ever ready however to focus its attention on the structures within which it works. The fascination of the Service with the conciliation approach in domestic work (sic) is one illustration of this tendency, but it is evident in the thinking of policy makers in the Service and in the Home Office. ‘we need to consider the range of options our supervisory repertoire should contain.’ ‘The one to one approach (officer / client casework relationship) is clearly appropriate in many situations, but an exclusive utilisation of one to one will mean that some client needs are not best met.’ A Home Office priority was ‘maintaining a range of facilities to be used in conjunction with probation and supervision orders which will increase their effectiveness.’

The emphasis then is on the facilities rather than on what occurs within them. ‘One to one’ begins to seem like a method of social work, and development appears to be only about new structures of contact between probation officers and clients. This focus on structures, of course, reflects a major problem of how to describe the content of the work between probation officers and their clients with sufficient specificity to allow for debate, criticism and accountability. It is a problem apparent in the sentencing process. The growth of Magistrates’ Courts and the Probation Service brings a shift from a personal relationship between probation officer and magistrate to a relationship between organisations. The loss of the personal element leads all concerned to place more reliance on impersonally expressed sentences, with the need for more explicit conditions and sanctions to be attached to the probation order to replace that which was known in the personality of the probation officer, which needed no explicit definition. The rhetoric of sentencing can therefore produce ideas such as negative conditions to supervision orders, whilst the actual experience of sentencers retains enough of a personal understanding of the probation officers’ role to lead to its minimal use in practice.

On the other hand, the rhetoric that derives from the personal contact of the probation officer’s work is characteristically seen as weak, ‘soft’, ineffectual, precious and even a symptom of the user’s uncontrolled purely subjective imagination or need. In the face of the threat of disorder, people feel the need for something ‘stronger’ than the ‘faith of the counsellors’, and are angered and provoked by the sustaining of that faith. Probation Officers are not surprisingly concerned about credibility with the Courts, and have often turned to devising sentencing options ironically known as ‘packages’, as if the crucial feature were the external design. The dissonance between the ‘credible package’ and the ‘social work values’ is sometimes quite explicitly acknowledged. Controlling conditions of day centres are particularly emphasised for the Courts, whilst claiming to hold to ‘softer’ client centred values in the practice. I recall a Home Office Inspector assuring us that there was no need to alter probation practice in any radical way to satisfy government, but that the work must only be sold differently.

 

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