Amarjit Kaur of Revolving Doors reports on the charity’s work to involve service users in probation work in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire – which included asking the question: What makes a good Probation Officer?
There is a growing recognition that, because of their direct experiences, service users have a unique insight into what works, which can be used to improve services.
In the criminal justice system, involvement has another crucial role to play, as a mechanism to support desistance by giving people an opportunity to become active citizens, to gain skills and a sense of self-worth.
Knowing what we do about the benefits, how do we move beyond tokenism when involving service users in probation services? Between 2102 and 2014 the Revolving Doors Agency worked with users of probation services in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire to try an address this question.
Professionals often see the main challenge to service user involvement as being getting service users on board. In my experience service users will get involved if the right incentives and support structures are in place.
Similarly, senior staff will see the benefits of involving people with direct experience. The challenge is how to get frontline staff engaged. There can be a sense of ‘why should we listen to them when no-one listens to us?’
The first stage of the project was about listening to these concerns and involving staff from the outset. This was done through a series of workshops and setting up a project team that included frontline and senior staff.
We then wanted to find out how people on probation felt about the service and how they wanted to be involved in decision making. With the support of probation staff and through advertising in LDU’s we recruited service users to train as researchers.
There are some classic criticisms of involvement that peer research can help to overcome. Things like ‘it’s just the same people who get involved’ or ‘it’s just an excuse for a rant’. By training a small group (9 people in Hertfordshire and 6 in Bedfordshire) in research skills and getting them to conduct research with other service users and with staff, the project was able to go beyond ‘the usual suspects’ and talk to a range of clients and staff, and produce high quality information to be used for business purposes.
In Bedfordshire the researchers decided after speaking to staff and discussing their own experiences to look into the following subjects; what makes a good probation officer; sentence planning and how the service people received in reception affected them.
The service user researchers devised a research methodology that involved focus groups with service users and with staff, interviews and also asking both groups to write their views on the question: “What makes a good probation officer?” onto a ‘stick person’ image.
There were common themes. Listening, understanding, challenging, being friendly and human, being positive about situations and clients, and being respectful appeared in both top tens, but there were also difference with staff seeing ‘listening’ as being most important while service users had ‘helpful/makes a difference’ at the top.
The findings from the research were incorporated into recruitment processes and led to a review of information to service users about what they could expect from probation officers. The researchers also made a film that incorporated their findings on what makes a good probation officer which has been very well received and used in SEEDS training.
Bedfordshire had scored lower than expected in the annual offender survey on the question about clients understanding of their sentence plan. Having interviewed staff and other service users the peer researchers found that probation officers rarely used the term sentence plan, and when explained to service users they did recognize the concept.
As a result of their findings the peer research team decided to produce a leaflet for service users about how to get the best out of probation, that featured a ‘jargon buster’.
In Hertfordshire the peer research team decided to look into access to housing, employment and training interventions and the relationship with probation officers.
In both areas senior management were asked to respond to the recommendations in the research reports and to work with the researchers to implement the findings. In Bedfordshire the report was presented at the staff conference and all staff asked to say what they saw as the key points and what would change about their practice as a result of the research findings.
‘Engaging more in conversation about my motivations and background to ‘break the ice’ and get clients to see me as ‘human’ and approachable.’
‘I will be more aware at the beginning of someone’s order/licence how daunting it can be and I will take more time to look at sentence plan aims – re-capping, having the person as involved as possible.’
‘Hearing service users perspectives and how I agree with them(we aren’t that different after all).’
‘It’s so easy to forget we are seen as powerful and services users can be afraid.’
‘Peer research group are so motivated to make this work, demonstrating to us that service users should be listened to and used in research.’
In both areas the probation service now had a group of highly informed service users. The Revolving Doors approach was not to bring in a prescribed structure for involvement but to support organisations and their service users to develop it in partnership. In Bedfordshire the peer researchers joined the staff project group to become a joint implementation team and in Hertfordshire they joined the current service user group who worked with staff to take forward the research recommendations. In both areas Revolving Doors trained staff to be able to repeat the process. Taking part in the research had a profound effect on those who took part as demonstrated by this quote:
‘The peer research group has enabled me to practice life skills, and has increased my confidence no end. Although I have had the ability to speak in a group, I sometimes lacked the courage of my convictions. So the group structure of the project was a massive boost for anyone who is trying to gain full time employment. I can look back in years to come with fondness, knowing that, even if only in a very small way, we have changed some people’s lives for the better.’
Revolving Doors is producing toolkits to support probation services to involve service users in all aspects of their work.