Probation Quarterly asked probation academics Prof Anne Worrall, of Keele University, and Prof Rob Canton, of De Montfort University, what they believe to be the values and ethics of probation practice.
What do you feel is the importance of commonly held values for probation?
Rob Canton: I think the expression that I’ve heard used sometimes is a ‘moral compass,’ something which helps us to work out in a principled way how policies and practices should develop, but also something that announces to the public what they can reasonably expect of probation work. So I think it has more than one audience. It guides the profession but it also in the process makes an important statement to the public about what matters and why we’re attempting to do what we are doing.
Anne Worrall: Commonly held values are one of the defining features of an organizational or occupational culture. They contribute to a sense of ‘how things are done around here’, including the rituals of daily routine, the work atmosphere and shared systems of meaning that are accepted, internalized and acted upon. They are reflected in shared experiences, training and mutual support. They affect how practitioners perceive the Probation Service. Without some kind of anchor that keeps workers grounded and motivated, and gives them a sense of belonging is a danger that they will be taken over by the values of the particular host organization in which they work. Of course, some of the values of those organizations will be perfectly compatible with probation work, but some won’t be and will need to be resisted or challenged. That’s where an explicit code of ethics can be so important.
What would you recognise then as the key ethics and values of probation?
Rob Canton: I think the first thing to say about them, as a preliminary observation, is that we shouldn’t have express values that are too abstract and too pious; people should know what those values amount to in practice. So for me one of them is the belief in the possibility that people can change, and the way in which that would be expressed is by a resolute refusal to give up on people – you don’t ever say about anybody ‘‘there’s no opportunity for you, you’re done, that’s your destiny.’’ I think another one that’s very important is the belief that getting out of offending is achieved through social inclusion, recognising that criminal justice is not just about crime and punishment but also includes dimensions of social justice, giving people fair opportunities to live lives in which offending has no place. And I suppose another one that’s important to me is that ‘everybody is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,’ said by a very eloquent speaker called Ryan Stevenson in the Unites States. We talk about offenders, but none of us I think, if we reflect on our own histories, think on the things that we’ve done that were mistakes or worse, bad things, none of us I think would like that to celebrate on our tombstones defining our lives, and similarly even people who’ve done very bad things – everybody is more than that bad thing that they’ve done. Those are for me the most important.
Anne Worrall: I am probably being rather pedantic but I think there is a difference between ethics and values. Values are the beliefs that we consider most important in our personal or professional life – and other people may agree or disagree with our values. Ethics are more concerned with how we decide to apply our values in practice, especially when we are faced with conflicts of interest. There are two broad ways of looking at ethics. Firstly we can consider outcomes or consequences – what actions bring about the most good (or harm), what ‘works’ and so on. The means are justified by the ends – payment by results, for example. The second approach is more about obligations, duties and rights. We act in a certain way because it is ‘right’, it is our ‘duty’ and we recognize other people’s rights to be treated in a certain way, regardless of the outcomes or consequences. In criminal justice work, most of what we do can be justified by either approach but sometimes it is helpful to think about which approach we are using in any given situation. Over the past couple of decades, there has been a greater emphasis on outcomes and consequences, to the extent that there is a danger that we forget that acting ethically may mean that ends cannot always justify means. For example, we might say that payment by results conflicts with our duty not to treat offenders as sources of profit. Again, a code of ethics can help with that. I’m not suggesting there is a simple solution to these ethical dilemmas but we shouldn’t avoid trying to think them through.
Writing a code of ethics is not easy. Everyone who has written about ‘probation values’ makes the point that trying to make a list of values that are universally agreed is neither desirable nor possible. Yet it is also impossible not to try! I suppose an overarching value would be a belief that justice for offenders and victims involves, among other things, a commitment to social inclusion. But that has several components. I think it would be very hard to do probation work if you did not believe that it is possible for people to change for the better – and to sustain that belief even in the face of evidence to the contrary. I don’t mean that one should adopt a naïve Pollyanna outlook on life but being able to cope with a degree of disappointment without losing faith in people is part and parcel of the work. As a probation worker, you also need to have the self-confidence to believe that you can play a part in the change – even if only a small and unquantifiable part. Respect is also a core value. Treating offenders with respect is not always intuitive and is certainly not simple. It involves a professionalism that values equality and diversity but even more difficult is respecting an offender regardless of their offence – as an end in themselves (with inalienable rights) even when the consequences of their actions may have been undeniably harmful. In other words, the relationship between worker and client/ offender is of central importance. Respect also involves giving the best and most professional service to everyone, including victims, and being accountable for that service. Wanting to be properly trained for the level and complexity of the work and developing one’s knowledge and skills through research are also important values in delivering the best possible service.
What are the main current challenges with taking these forward?
Rob Canton: One problem is that the probation profession is in such a difficult place in its contemporary history, and I think there is a generation of practitioners, most of whom are now in the NPS and still in the CRCs, who have had a sufficiently common professional education to take for granted some of the things that I’ve been talking about in terms of values and their importance, and I should add here diversity commitment, which I see as an aspect of justice – giving everybody the best service that you’re able to give is I think one good way of beginning to understand the questions of diversity. You then need to move to find out why it is that we fail to do that because that sounds like the right thing to be doing – you need to look at the detail. But to return to the question I think that at the moment there is a sufficient homogeneity – people understand those values, but as the profession diversifies as different sectors become involved, it’s hard to know whether they’ll be able to hold on to some of that – it won’t be familiar to them, it won’t be taken for granted – and although some of these values I think emerge from doing the job well, there will be some people who set different priorities for them. We don’t yet know what they are, but we do know that they are keen to save money in all kinds of ways and to interpret the job in a particular way and that could lead to a change in practice and consequently a change in values because in a sense the values of a profession are not just your aspiration but what you actually do, so if a profession says it values justice but behaves unjustly, well, it doesn’t value justice. So I think that the biggest challenge is precisely that, that and the political volatility because probation has always been used by governments to achieve certain agendas and had its values set for it.
Anne Worrall: I have already alluded to some of these but perhaps I should be more explicit. The greatest challenge is the fragmentation of probation work and the dispersal of probation workers to a variety of organizations from across the public, private and voluntary sectors. It isn’t so much that these new arrivals on the probation scene will automatically hold values that are incompatible with traditional probation values, but rather that it will be difficult to retain a probation culture and identity within a host organization that has its own cultures and values. So the need to retain an identity that is independent of the immediate working environment could become really important.
A further challenge could be persuading probation workers that a code of ethics is the right way to ensure this continuing identity. Unlike some professions, probation workers haven’t experienced a specific code of ethics before and some may feel that it is divisive rather than supportive. There has already been consultation about the PI code but this should not be a one-off. As more work is done on the translation of the code into practice guidelines, that consultation should continue, with the involvement of as wide a variety of workers as possible.
Finally, there is a danger that the code might be seen by some as a political smoke-screen to impose certain values and practices on workers. However, if one reads the content of the PI code of ethics, I think it is difficult to sustain that argument. On the contrary, it gives a reassurance that the PI is not merely the sugar coating on the pill of Transforming Rehabilitation.
In your recent presentation at our Probation Institute conferences, you talked about practice based on ‘what’s right’ as well as ‘what works.’ Could you expand on this for us now, on how these two practices might work together?
Rob Canton: I think they can and should work together, because one of the most fundamental rights that all people should enjoy is a right to go about their lives in peace and to pursue their own projects without being offended against. So if something works, and reduces the incidences of crime, to that extent it does enhance the rights and liberties of individuals so that’s good I don’t want to set up a contrast. But for many years now, we’ve begun by the research question, working out policy and practice to go with what works and I think actually some of the research findings of that have been a little disappointing and inconclusive and if you begin there and somebody comes up and makes a moral objection to what you’re doing, there’s a risk that you just regard that as some sort of a nuisance, an impediment, an afterthought that gets in the way of your relentless pursuit of trying to reduce reconviction. I think if you begin sometimes with ‘what’s right’ and consider the entitlements of the victims, members of the community, the personnel, the service users, the rights of all those people because all of them are part of that calculus, you end up with a different perspective and you may end up also actually, oddly, achieving the goals that probation sets for itself in terms of reoffending, public protection and the rest. So I think there’s definitely a synergy between those two things, but I do think that sometimes you might do better to begin with the ethical question rather than the practical one.
How do you feel the changing occupational cultures of probation practitioners affect the ability of the profession to create and maintain a shared code of ethics?
Anne Worrall: When I trained to become a probation officer in the 1970s, common values were very important but they were taken for granted and there was a broad consensus. Although the Probation Service had chosen not to join the new Social Services Departments in England and Wales, probation officers were still very much social workers and embraced social work values. Probably the most well-known articulation of those values – and their application in practice – could be found in Biestek’s book, The Casework Relationship. His principles of individualization, purposeful expression of emotions, controlled emotional environment, acceptance, non-judgemental attitude, client self-determination and confidentiality may sound quaint nowadays but were embedded in our training and provided a common language that we all understood.
By the 1980s and 1990s, when I was responsible for qualifying education for Home Office sponsored students at two universities, that consensus was challenged in at least three ways: by managerialism with its focus on performance and accountability; by anti-discriminatory practice with its focus on equality and diversity; and by victims’ rights awareness. In 1995, Brian Williams edited a book called Probation Values in which he captured these changes and debates. Much of that book, and particularly the introduction, remain relevant today. But despite much debate and controversy, the values discourse of probation was enriched, rather than diminished, by these challenges and has remained remarkably universal. In our recent research on probation occupational cultures, Rob Mawby and I found that the values discourse underpinning the work of probation was surprisingly consistent, regardless of a worker’s age, training regime or position within the organization.
On the surface, probation values may have changed over the decades but if one looks deeper, it is perhaps the terminology that has changed more than the value itself. For example, ‘acceptance’, ‘non-judgemental attitude’ and ‘client self-determination’ are archaic phrases but they are not a million miles away from what we know about desistance and how it is achieved. For me, there is only one core historic value that I think has changed beyond recognition and that is ‘confidentiality’. Although it was never an absolute right, even in the hey-day of social work, I doubt if many probation workers would consider confidentiality to be a core value at all nowadays. On the contrary, willingness to exchange information with colleagues and other relevant agencies, in the name of public protection, is arguably a value in itself. Conflicts of interest between offenders, victims and the wider public are clearly demonstrated when it comes to deciding who has the right to what information about whom. Perhaps that is the biggest cultural challenge – a recognition that justice is a multi-agency enterprise – that affects the creation and maintenance of a code of ethics. But that realization means that it is exactly the right moment now to try and capture ‘probation values’ in an ever-changing work environment.
Finally, what role do you think the Probation Institute should have in promoting ethics, values and principles?
Rob Canton: It’s a very important role indeed, because who else is going to be doing that? As I’ve said it’s about guiding the profession but also about telling the public about what they can expect of the profession, and I’m not sure who else might be doing that. So the government might have a particular vision, but government statements about that are inevitably tainted with the priorities of the day. So when it was Mr Kenneth Clarke as Minister of Justice and it was Transforming Rehabilitation and putting rehabilitation at the centre that was one vision for it, and then it became Mr Grayling and he has a different kind of vision for it. I think that governments are not the right people to be articulating the values of the profession, and there is therefore a void which the Probation Institute is admirably equipped to fill, which says yes, these are the values that we hold. But in order to do that of course it has to engage with all the probation agencies and over time that’s going to become a diverse collection of people.
Anne Worrall: It is very important that one of the first things the Probation Institute has done is to establish a code of ethics. Of course, there is much more work to be done on how to apply the code in practice but the PI has now set out the parameters of its value base. This means that potential members – whether individuals or organizations – can judge whether or not they wish to be associated with it. Inevitably, some will decide that the value base does not reflect what they consider to be the most important aspects of their work. Personally, I think that is sad, but