Sodexo were the first of the new CRC owners to publish their new operating model (Service Delivery Solution) about a year ago. In May 2015, Napo’s Professional Committee published a critical analysis of the model (P19-15), to which we have yet to receive any response from the company. More recently, the Probation Institute have published a paper entitled ‘Principles of office arrangements’ which comments primarily on the concept of
open-plan working which is at the heart of this and other operating models.
Incrementally over the intervening months, most CRC owners have now presented their plans for new ways of working. There are common themes running through them all. Not least of these is a dramatic reduction in staffing numbers. By the end of 2016, we estimate that we will be well on the way to losing around 2000 posts across all the CRCs. This, of itself, will herald or rather force into existence, new ways of working that rely far, far less on face to face meetings with service users, certainly at lower levels of assessed risk. Some of the proposed staffing losses are of such magnitude that one has to question how the CRCs affected will be able to function at all.
Then, in addition to a significant shift towards open plan offices for staff and service users alike, there are a number of other emerging common themes. New IT systems, case management systems and new risk assessment tools are almost universally proposed. So too are centralised back-office functions and administrative/operational hubs to service each CRC. Not only will these hubs manage the ‘administrative’ tasks such as case allocation and the collation of breach papers, they will also operate, for want of a better term, as ‘call-centres’ notably for ‘low-risk’ service users. Together with the use of what is sometimes called remote media, (text messaging, biometric reporting etc) they will be the main point of contact for many service users who will in many cases be quite geographically distant from these offices.
An inevitable conclusion to draw is that face-to-face contact with service users and indeed building a relationship (long thought to be the keystone of probation work) is becoming an expensive luxury in these austere times, where time is very definitely money. Even first appointments will often be styled as group inductions. Is there anything positive to be said about these new ways of working? There is a welcome focus on desistance theory as well as staff getting out more into the community. Sometimes styled ‘agile working’ this may become something of a necessity as the number of offices, desks and chairs reduces dramatically. A greater reliance on partner agencies might also reap benefits.
Rather than continuing to look individually at each new operating model as it emerges, Napo’s Professional Committee in conjunction with the Probation Institute is in the process of trying to develop some ‘best practice’ principles which should be observed as these new ways of working come on stream. We are considering consistency of practice. Innovation is all well and good, but the danger is that experiences will diverge from one area to another and of course it is important that records and assessments are readily transferable not just from a CRC to the NPS and vice versa but also between CRCs. Contact with probation services should be meaningful, positive and constructive. This is true for service users but also the courts. We are concerned that the attenuation of service delivery will ultimately call into question the very purpose of placing offenders under community supervision – with the associated risk of a greater use of custody. In this context, we are particularly vexed by what is in our view the virtually incomprehensible Rehabilitation Activity Requirement.
So there is a challenge inherent in seeking to make any sense of community supervision in the new CRC environment. Modern technologies and methods of communicating may indeed need to be assimilated but hopefully not at the expense of the fundamental relationship between supervisor and supervisee. This is a challenge which we believe must be met as a basis for ensuring that service users get a good deal with a consequent positive impact on public safety. It is also important if we are to retain both the sanity and indeed the services of probation staff working in CRCs. As with service users, they should be empowered within their roles and provided with job satisfaction.