Experiencing supervision in England and Wales

The probation services of England and Wales have a long and distinguished history and have been extremely influential in the development of systems and practices of supervision in many jurisdictions, within Europe and beyond. Yet today, they are under extreme political pressure and it looks likely that much of their work will be privatised in the near future. But how much do we know about the lived experience of supervision in England and Wales. Our colleagues Lol Burke and Wendy Fitzgibbon have recently summarised the available evidence on this question for our working group on Experiencing Supervision. Their full report can be found on the Documents and Resources page and here: Experiencing supervision – England and Wales Country Report (FINAL)

But to whet, your appetite, here is an excerpt:

Many of the studies referred to in this overview attempt to give a voice which is usually silent in probation histories and dominated by the accounts of policymakers, academics and practitioners. However as Bailey (2007) contends, we need to understand the offender’s view and the insights provided by the desistance literature which recognises that the meaning and significance that offenders attach to life events or opportunities to desist from offending offer a valuable point of reference and their absence is a potential flaw in probation research that is only recently being redressed. Many of the studies discussed here have some methodological limitations, in that they are often based on small samples and are largely reliant on the respondents perception of events mainly obtained through interviews and questionnaires rather than observing the processes involved (see Fergus McNeill’s country report for similar findings in relation to Scottish studies). There is also a tendency to represent those subject to supervision as a homogenous group and therefore not be fully engaged with or sensitive to issues of diversity. So what lessons can be learnt from these attempts to throw light on the experiences of supervision?

  • Conducting ‘consumer’ led research with those subject to supervision is not easy but it is worthwhile because it provides a potentially unique perspective from those involved in the process. Policy and practice in England and Wales, particularly since the mid 1990s, has very much taken a ‘top down’ approach driven by the findings of empirical and apparently value-neutral research primarily concerned with establishing an evidence base for the effectiveness of various accredited programmes to reduce reoffending. But as Hedderman et al note ‘outcome evaluations which rely exclusively or mainly on information in project databases and criminal records may not capture key elements which make an intervention “work”. Neglecting service users’ insights may lead to under-estimating resource needs, unrealistic target setting, and the eventual abandonment of promising ideas in favour of the next “new” magic bullet’ (2011, p.3). Listening to the experiences of those being supervised and using their insight to shape more responsive practices is intuitively positive but as Hughes notes; ‘these must be perceived as sincere. Approaches to seeking service user views, which are based on rigid impersonal processes may reinforce negative experiences’ (2012, p.62).
  • Despite their differences in approach and focus, there is a remarkable consistency within the available research regarding those values that are viewed positively by those subject to supervisory sanctions. In short, this could be summed up as an encouraging and empathetic approach taken by the practitioner in the provision of advice and assistance that is viewed as practical and relevant by the individual being supervised. The value of this approach would seem to pertain regardless of broader policy changes aimed at enhancing probation’s credentials as a public protection agency and is still evidenced in the practice of many front-line staff (Fitzgibbon 2007, 2011).
  • Legitimacy in terms of a personal attachment to a member of staff who in turn demonstrates concern for and personal interest in the individual supervised was seen to be the most effective means of promoting compliance. This would seem to support  the assertion by Canton (2007) that ‘people are more likely to comply with expectations on them and to accept decisions – even decisions that go against their own preferences – when they are persuaded that these are fair (have been fairly arrived at) and are reasonable’ (p.57).
  • The relational aspects of supervision are at risk of becoming increasingly fragmented in England and Wales as the government intends to accelerate its plans to introduce a mixed economy of offender services involving the transfer of much of the work traditionally undertaken by the probation service to a range of private and voluntary sector providers. This will require more research across a range of providers to ensure that those subject to these services are properly heard and accounted for in terms of designing, developing and implementing services. This also raises fundamental issues in terms of legitimacy.
  • There is clearly a need for more research into the lived experiences of supervision to counter some of the misconceptions of community sanctions held by many within society (even those within the criminal justice system). It also involves understanding supervision as a shared process involving a range of actors. Further research can assist in uncovering the ‘black box’ (Bonta et al, 2008) of supervision but it also needs to be sensitive to how supervision is experienced by different groups and the differential impact of the increasing armoury of community disposals.
  • There appears to be something of a gap between people’s perceptions and the realities of supervision. Whilst public support for the probation service in England and Wales has declined (despite many changes within the organisational structures largely justified on the grounds of enhancing credibility with the public) there is still significant support for the principle of rehabilitation particularly where there is a reparative element. Media coverage of serious offences committed by those on supervision, though rare, has also served to damage probation’s reputation. However, as Maruna and King (2008) found in their survey of 1000 members of the public in England and Wales, there was widespread support for the idea of ‘redeemability’ (ie. The notion that everyone can change their ways and ‘make good’ can be powerful vehicles for increasing public confidence’ (p.344).

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