Rehabilitating Probation: Rebuilding culture, identity and legitimacy in a reformed public service

Lead Research Organisation: Liverpool John Moores University
Department Name: School of Justice Studies


The Probation Service plays a key role in the criminal justice system providing public protection, managing risk and supporting the rehabilitation of offenders. Probation services are responsible for supervising around 250,000 people who are serving community-based sentences or on licence following release from prison. In 2013 the Government took the decision to transfer or 'outsource' over half of the work (and workforce) of the Service to newly created private companies (CRCs), whilst retaining a smaller public sector National Probation Service (NPS), to supervise the highest risk offenders. In 2021 these CRCs will be dissolved and the NPS will expand to absorb most of their work (and workforce). Thus, the Probation Service will experience an unprecedented process of 'reunification' and 're-nationalisation'. Not only does this have major implications for how probation work is delivered, but it also offers researchers a unique opportunity to understand how public services adapt when 'outsourcing' policies fail; how individual and organisational identities are re-built after major organisational change; and how organisations seek to (re-)build the confidence of their staff and the organisations and stakeholders with whom they work (e.g. courts; police).

The aims of the research are to examine the implementation of a significant programme of public service reform which will bring formerly outsourced probation services back into the public sector. The study aims to understand experiences and consequences of reform at local, regional and national levels and from a variety of perspectives, including: probation staff; senior managers; policy makers; service users; and external stakeholders. The research will explore the impact of reform on the roles, identities and cultures of probation workers and observe how a newly reconfigured probation service seeks to (re-) build legitimacy with its external partners.

The research will be undertaken by a team of researchers over three years as the reform agenda commences and unfolds, and there are five Work Packages (WPs) which will run in parallel:
WP1 will entail interviews with probation workers in one case study area so that we can gain detailed insights into how the reform is experienced by staff. We will conduct a total of 180 interviews (60 per year) with a mixed sample of staff in different roles, aiming to 'track' the experiences of about 75% of the sample through the project.
WP2 will entail interviews with the senior managers in all 12 of the NPS regions, enabling us to understand the process of change nationally. We will seek to repeat these interviews annually (total 36 interviews).
WP3 will entail interviews and observation of inter-agency meetings (e.g. local Criminal Justice Boards) to gain insights into how the NPS seeks to represent itself to other organisations and stakeholders, and with what success. This WP will focus on the case study area but will also engage national organisations whose perceptions of probation are important (e.g. the Magistrates' Association).
WP4 will entail interviews with senior policy officials in order to gain an understanding of the process of policy implementation at a national level. In the first year 15-20 interviews will be conducted, followed (in years 2 and 3) by two further waves of 5-10 follow-up interviews to capture policy makers' emerging thinking as the implementation of the reforms unfold.
WP5 will explore service users' experiences of probation service reform, and the researchers will engage former service users to design, co-produce and deliver research.

The project has built-in milestones to share research findings with a variety of audiences via a series of interactive forums including practitioner engagement events; project website; action learning sets with Regional Managers; and an end of project dissemination event. Written briefing reports and academic publications will extend the reach of the research.


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