The Quality of Supervision

This guest post comes from Scott Grant of Glasgow Caledonian University.
If the purpose of supervising offenders in the community is to achieve reductions in reoffending, whilst protecting the public and promoting social inclusion (as it says on the Scottish tin), then we’re asking practitioners to do some very complex, delicate and ethically dense work. Not only are these Government-set objectives broad in scope, but they result in notoriously difficult outcomes to measure in practice. In Scotland at least, we appear to have a complex landscape of criminal justice policy underpinned by penal purposes of reparation, rehabilitation, restriction and reintegration (see McNeill and Weaver, 2010). This penal backdrop lends itself to (ongoing) questions about what are the best interventions or models to help achieve results. But lacking within these more technical debates about ‘effectiveness’ and ‘What Works’, are questions about the nature and concept of ‘quality’ in the routine everyday supervision of offenders in the community.
‘Quality’ is largely under-developed as a concept within practices and processes of offender supervision, whilst definitions and ideas about quality are themselves contested (See Shapland et al., 2012). In a recent article published in the British Journal of Social Work – ‘What matters in practice? Understanding ‘quality’ in the routine supervision of offenders in Scotland’ – Fergus McNeill and I report on a study we conducted within one of Scotland’s largest local authorities. We gained rare access to criminal justice social workers who agreed to participate in focus group interviews to explore how they conceptualise and construct meanings of ‘quality’ in their everyday work with offenders. Our research partially replicates a similar study conducted in England and Wales by a team at the University of Sheffield (See Robinson et al., 2012; 2013). The Sheffield team gave us permission to replicate elements of their study within a Scottish context (in a forthcoming paper we attempt a comparative analysis of both datasets). Data from the Scottish project was both revealing and suggestive of perhaps something far more profound at play within constituted and contested sites of practice.
Amongst a variety of interesting results, we found that by reducing ‘quality’ to a crude output metric – as some systems and agencies do – we ignore the value in more nuanced and less explicit components of good practice. We found that practitioners, on the whole, preferred working towards more qualitative outcomes in routine cases – offering flexible and individualised approaches that help to encourage incremental change instead of aiming for (unrealistic) wholesale desistance. We discovered a general resistance to punitive populism, managerialism and prescribed interventions; and we uncovered a strong commitment to ensuring that welfare needs are met in all cases, and that public protection and risk are incorporated into thinking about interventions (even if they are not centre-stage in most cases). The importance of values seemed to underpin the impulse of practitioners to frame their work as something almost vocational and deeply humane. This suggests to us that practitioners might not, as otherwise thought, be suffering from a legitimacy crisis over their role in the criminal justice system (Cavadino et al., 2013). Indeed, our data revealed that practitioners appear resilient to what seems to be a broader political project to re-assert the penal arm of the state (See ibid.; and also Wacquant, 2009).After initial data sifting, we identified seven themes that emerged from focus group interviews (essentially seven areas that appeared to underpin ‘quality’ in practice): relational processes; resources; social work values; skills and knowledge; going beyond National Standards; support from colleagues; and outcome-oriented practice.
Emerging strongly from the data was a consensus that ‘quality’ would appear to be a fluid concept that finds location in both practical application (in doing) and by the practitioners’ own approach to practice (in values, beliefs and ethics). Quality was less associated with some of the more technocratic elements of contemporary interventions (such as the use of prescribed programmes) and surprisingly less affiliated with subscription to official National Standards and national guidance on offender management (although some practitioners felt that good risk assessments were indicative of quality). Perhaps more interestingly, we found that practitioners appeared to traverse a punitive landscape with degrees of resistance to both managerial pressures and organisational demands – operating in tailored ways to ensure that multiple problems (personal, social, practical) might be addressed within routine supervision. A widespread rejection of homogeneity in favour of recognising variation and diversity emerged with strength throughout discussions.
A solid and robust consensus emerged on the theme of relationships (perhaps the strongest association with ‘quality’ in this study). Practitioners appeared to value relational processes more than other facets of practice. When we looked deeper into this, practitioners seemed to identify ‘the relationship’ as the crucial starting point with any offender – ultimately providing the foundation to build meaningful and crucially productive partnerships.
In conclusion, we argue that capturing subjective elements of quality remains a persistent difficulty and challenge for contemporary criminal justice practice. Measuring outputs would appear to neglect a wide variety of incremental changes in the offender’s life that could indicate some movement towards desistance (and towards better outcomes); but we acknowledge that practical limitations in measuring more qualitative indicators in routine cases will require more detailed research to identify and capture what we ought to be measuring in practice. One observation from our research is that whilst systems often struggle to measure change, practitioners can often see change in individual offenders (but this is notoriously difficult to articulate and capture for the purposes of agency accountability and Government reporting). In essence, our understanding of offender supervision as a constructed and constituted practice would appear to be in its infancy, but one that is slowly developing through careful empirical study. We hope our research is an important step in the further exploration into this surprisingly neglected area of criminal justice.
Cavadino, M., Dignan, J. and Mair, G. (2013) The Penal System: An Introduction (5th Ed.), London: Sage.
McNeill, F. & Weaver, B. (2010) Changing Lives? Desistence Research and Offender Management, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research.
Robinson, G., Priede, C., Farrall, S., Shapland, J., & McNeill, F. (2012) ‘Doing’strengths-based’ research: Appreciative Inquiry in a probation setting’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, advance access first published May 22, 2012, doi: 10.1177/1748895812445621
Robinson, G., Priede, C., Farrall, S., Shapland. J., & McNeill, F. (2013) ‘Understanding ‘quality’ in probation practice: Frontline perspectives in England & Wales’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, advance access first published on May 20, 2013, doi: 10.1177/1748895813483763
Shapland, J., Bottoms, A., Farrell, S., McNeill, F., Priede, C. and Robinson, G. (2012) The Quality of Probation Supervision: A Literature Review, Centre for Criminological Research, University of Sheffield, Occasional Paper 3. ( Last Accessed 20 October 2013).
Wacquant, L. (2009) Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, London: Duke University Press

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