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A changing probation service

Source: Public Sector Executive May/June 2013

Heather Munro, chief executive of the London Probation Trust, discusses the improvements and efficiencies it has implemented to be awarded four stars in the ‘Recognised for Excellence’ programme by the British Quality Foundation.

Probation is one of the areas of the public sector undergoing some of the most radical change, under Government plans to parcel up a huge amount of existing services and outsource them to private and voluntary sector providers.

London Probation Trust was one of the first to be exposed to the new more marketised system, when community payback was put out for competition in the capital. Serco won that contract, but, unusually, with London Probation Trust as its sub-contractor and partner. The probation trust concentrates on the management of offenders and post-court assessment and enforcement, while Serco handles moving the offenders around and their work placements and so on.

Probation trust chief executive Heather Munro told PSE: “We’ve learnt a lot about the bidding process, and about working in partnership with the private sector.

“It puts us in a unique position. I think it was probably one of the first times that’s happened – to be a sub-contractor to the private sector.”

Following the Transforming Rehabilitation consultation and strategy (see below), a new National Probation Service is to be created, and much existing work done by probation trusts will be put out for competition.

Munro said: “But Probation Trusts won’t be able to bid for that work, because there is an element of payment by results – and so the Government won’t allow public money to be put at risk.

“There is a potential to set up mutuals, so we’ve got a small part of the organisation that’s got some Cabinet Office support to develop a mutual, which might be part of a future supply chain.

“I don’t think the trust will stay part of the public sector in the long term.

“The Transforming Rehabilitation consultation was based on a small part of probation work – probably about 30%, with a focus on risk of harm – remaining in the public sector [under the new National Probation Service]. The rest would be contracted out in package areas, a bit like with the Work Programme, with private or voluntary sector delivering that. Our staff would in effect be TUPE’d to other organisations.”

Quality and improvement

Despite these major changes to come, London Probation Trust has still had to concentrate on the day-to-day running of its services, and has recently put a special focus on quality and improvement.

Munro told us: “We’ve been able to not only maintain frontline services but increase the number of posts significantly, with 19% more probation officers. How we’ve achieved that is by making efficiencies in back office functions: starting at the top. When I came in three years ago, I had a senior management team that had about 10 directors in it. I now have three directors working alongside me. We’ve been making savings in the HR department, IT, training: we’ve been gradually going through all the back office functions, trying to make sure that we can deliver the same service, or improved services, with less. It’s certainly true that we’ve been able to make efficiencies, then reinvest that in the front line.

“We’ve also made some changes to frontline services. We have probation service officer grades and we did reduce those grades, but that was to try to match workload. One of the things you need if you’re going to be efficient and manage different workflows is flexible staff. We’ve tried to ensure our staff are skilled in a number of areas, and can move across the organisation. We had a lot of staff who perhaps worked in courts or in prisons for many years, but we’re trying to create more movement and to spread expertise.”

Effects of wider public sector cuts

Asked about the trust’s financial situation and the way probation has been affected by the spending review, Munro explained: “I think every public sector body has faced budget restrictions, but in probation, ours started even before the rest of the public sector – about two years earlier than local government and so on. It has been year-on-year.

“Having said that, it’s been around 10-15% cuts. So it’s been gradual, rather than massive each year.

“But one of my favourite phrases is ‘never waste a good recession’ – because it is an opportunity to think differently, which you wouldn’t be able to do at any other time.

“Because other organisations are going through the same thing, there are opportunities there.

“But what is particularly hard now for us is where the budget cuts are really biting for other organisations, particularly around local government – the sorts of services we need to access to move offenders away from reoffending are less likely to be available. One of the key things is getting offenders into housing, and that’s becoming more and more difficult and challenging. Getting offenders into employment; access to drug and alcohol services. When there’s pressure on other budgets, that also impacts on us, too.”

Income and revenue generation

A past focus for the trust has been trying to fund more of its work through income generation and through bidding for money from central and European grants.

But Munro said: “There’s less opportunity for that now. In the past, London Probation had had European Social Fund money – some quite big pots of money, particularly around getting offenders into employment.

“That isn’t around as much now, but what we have been better at is looking at money from the local boroughs. Our locally-based staff have been bidding for local money, from the mayor’s office for example – we’ve had some success with that.

“We’re trying to find ways we can grow resources for offenders, as well as just growing income.”

‘Recognised for Excellence’

The trust decided to go through the British Quality Foundation (BQF) programme ‘Recognised for Excellence’ to improve its management and processes.

It is all about investing in people, making processes consistent, benchmarking against other organisations, measuring results over time, and engaging staff with change processes. The standards that organisations going through the process have to hold themselves to are generic rather than specific to say probation work.

Munro told us: “It’s about evidencing that you’re investing your resources in the right places, using a workload measurement tool. There are some fairly generic things that they test against, but it is fair to say that London Probation Trust has taken on board the ‘European Excellence’ approach. Many probation trusts have been on this journey, and there are a number which have five stars. The probation service is the only public sector organisation that won a national award for quality.

“So we’ve been able to learn from other trusts who are further along the journey; it’s a challenge though, because we are by far the biggest – there are 35 probation trusts but we do a fifth of all probation work. Nowhere comes close, in terms of size or the challenges of working in London.

“The good thing, really, is getting outsiders coming in and assessing you. We keep saying, it’s not about getting the award – it’s about trying to learn, to improve, and to test ourselves against others.”

Next steps

Asked about actions the trust is taking or is going to take in light of the work done with the BQF, Munro said it was more about embedding change rather than coming up with lots of new things to do. “Are we learning from what’s happened and going back to improve it?” she said.

“One thing we are going to do is go for a Customer Service Excellence award: it’s another way of changing the culture of the organisation.”

Even defining who a probation trust’s ‘customers’ are is an important first step.

Munro said: “We have ‘consumers’ of our service, who are the offenders and victims – but we have a whole range of other customers, like the courts, you could say the public, and we also have a contract with the National Offender Management Service to deliver services.

One of the challenges is actually identifying who your customers are, and what you’re delivering for them. Are you listening to them, taking feedback and improving?

“Assuming we exist as a trust going forward – and I think we will, certainly in the short term – we want to keep a big focus on constantly improving our quality.

“We want to ensure we’re protecting Londoners and doing our very best to reduce re-offending. The best way to do that is to continue this journey. We would like to keep improving and hopefully, in the future, go for a five-star rating.”

Transforming rehabilitation

Key aspects of the reforms:

• A new public sector National Probation Service will be created;
• Every offender released from custody will receive statutory supervision and rehabilitation in the community;
• A nationwide ‘through the prison gate’ resettlement service will be put in place, meaning most offenders are given continuous support by one provider from custody into the community. Most offenders will be in a local prison for at least three months before release;
• The market will be opened up to new rehabilitation providers;
• New payment incentives for market providers to be based on reductions in reoffending.

More information at transforming-rehabilitation 


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