The aim of this Working Group is to examine the construction and constitution of offender supervision and to provide a richer and more nuanced description of the practice. In this we are focus on the practices performed by different professional and para-professional groups. We are interested in how they are trained and supervised as well as how they shape and are shaped by practice. Consideration is also given to the role of new technologies of and for practice; for example, risk-assessment and offender classification tools. Further, we will explore different dimensions that affect the interaction and relationships between supervisors and supervised, as well as relationships between different professional actors.

If you would like to know more or are interested in taking part, please contact the working group leaders :

Gwen Robinson:

Kerstin Svensson:

(Retrospective) Observations on a Troubled City

This post comes from Johan Boxstaens, one of the Belgian members of the Action. In it, he reflects on visiting Belfast, and on the work we did there at out recent meeting.

Belfast International Airport – Wednesday October 22th, 8PM

A special moment: thanks to the COST action I finally set foot on Northern-Irish soil for the first time. Although I’ve visited the nearby Republic of Ireland numerous times, for some reason I never made it to Belfast. If I think about it now, that is kind of strange. To me, Northern Ireland, the ‘Troubles’ and especially the city of Belfast have always had some kind of mythical aura thanks to music from U2 & Rory Gallagher, but especially because of Tom. When I was a teenager, Tom – who lived in Belfast – would come over to Belgium every year for the summer holidays. He used to stay at my best friend’s house and for a few years we spent most of the summer together. Every year, Tom had new stories on what was happening in the Conflict between Republicans and Loyalists in the whole of Northern-Ireland but especially in his hometown. He was the first to introduce me to the concept of ‘the Troubles’. Tom was a very passionate storyteller. Of course he only told us his side of the story: Tom was Catholic and to him all Protestants were the enemy. He spoke about the IRA, the UVF and how they fought their war on the streets of Belfast. At first I thought it was pretty exciting. In the small Belgian village where I grew up in nothing ever happened and, as a 14-year old, I was attracted to the romantic idea of ‘fighting for a just cause’. But all that changed abruptly on a sunny day in the summer of 1991…

My best friend Hans, Tom and myself were out riding our bikes when all of the sudden we heard a very loud bang. When I looked behind me to see what was going on, I only saw Hans on his bike. A few moments later, we realized that Tom had dived instinctively into a ditch on the side of the road as soon as he heard the noise. We found him shaking all over, terrified and not able to speak for several minutes. That’s when it hit me: there was (and still is) nothing ‘romantic’ about the Troubles at all…

Belfast wall

West Belfast – Thursday October 23th, 5PM

After a productive meeting in our working group on practicing supervision and the three subgroups, Nicola Carr arranged a visit to West Belfast, an area of the city most profoundly affected by the Conflict. Sixteen years after the signing of the peace agreement, Coiste, an organization of former political prisoners is giving guided tours through what used to be their battlefield. More than twenty years after the ‘Tom-incident’, I hear both sides of the story: the first guide gives us the Republican insight on the Troubles, the second one tells us the Loyalist version. Different style, different story but also shared emotions, a shared ‘peace wall’ and similar memorial sites. When we step out of the bus for a short stop at an IRA memorial, kids who are playing in the street don’t greet us with the traditional request for sweets or a penny, but by shouting ‘peace, peace’…  After a short tour, the bus takes us back to the city centre with plenty of things to think about. Back in my hotel room I struggle with an ambivalent feeling: apparently the Troubles as we knew them really are history, but on the other hand the physical environment of West Belfast (the gates, the ‘peace wall’, the cages to protect people’s houses, the murals, …) very much keeps the history alive even after sixteen years of peace. My goodness folks…

Belfast tour

Belfast – Youth Action – October 24th, second day of the meeting

After the traditional dinner of the night before, the start of the second day of the meeting is a little slower than the first one. Before lunch, every working group works hard to finish what they planned to do and new plans for the future are made. In the plenary session after lunch every group presents the progress they’ve made. In my opinion, all presentations show that the COST action really begins to bear fruits: special issues of journals are being planned, methodological issues are being addressed, abstracts are written, tools are constructed, questions are starting to get answered and we could even applaud the fact that the first funds have been found to do (small scale) research. In the next weeks and months researchers and practitioners in the 22 participating jurisdictions will be very busy following up on what we achieved so far. So the COST-story continues and although it seems relatively far away and a lot of work has to be done in the meantime, I’m already looking forward to our next meeting and the conference in Athens in April 2015. I hope to see you all again there and then!

Practising supervision: Innovative research methods?

This post comes from Jake Phillips, who reflects on his experience of the ‘Practising Supervision’ working group at the recent Malta meeting.

This was the second time I had attended a COST event. The first was the conference in Liverpool but this was the first time I felt like I really got stuck in and that, for me, is what made the meeting so enjoyable. Rather than spending two days listening to others, the majority of the meeting was spent working in small groups thinking about how to go about conducting a small but innovative piece of research into what it means to practise supervision across Europe. I decided to join a subgroup which was working on using practice diaries to investigate the practise of supervision – something which has not been done on a large scale, as identified in the book Offender Supervision in Europe.

We began by looking at other research (from outside the realm of community sanctions) which had used diaries as a method of research. This led to a discussion about how structured we wanted to make our diaries which resulted in a wide ranging conversation about what kind of data we want to generate and how it might be used. One issue which came up, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the time that it might take for practitioners to complete the diaries on a daily basis – we were keen to ensure that they don’t place too great a burden on practitioners’ daily lives. This informed our decision to make our diary entries relatively structured which we hope practitioners will complete on a daily basis, giving us a picture of a ‘day in the life’ of a probation worker. We decided that the structured nature of the diary necessitated a follow up reflective interview in order to examine the processes and mechanisms which underpin the general picture generated by the diary itself (for the pilot we plan to use these interviews to think about how the diary entry process went in order with a view to use to refine and amend the tool for a larger piece of research). We also discussed ethics and access and it was clear that these varied considerably across jurisdictions – at the moment we are planning a very small pilot but it was clear that these might present considerable issues when we come to do the research on a larger scale. Finally, we thought about how we could make the diaries useful to practitioners themselves and considered how we could use them to conduct action research alongside the generation of the data – we hope that by including a space for practitioners to reflect on their day as part of the diary entry they will be able to learn something new about their work.

Having created a basic version of the diary tool the Practising Supervision working group reconvened and we heard about how the other subgroups had got on in their discussions around visualising probation and using observations to research probation. It was interesting to note that many of the same issues had arisen (such as how structured to be when designing the initial tool/instructions for participants, as well as issues around access and ethics). For me, the most interesting observation was that all subgroups had decided to use interviews to augment their primary mode of research. Whilst such a mixed methods approach might result in deeper and more nuanced data, it made me think about whether we need to work harder to move away from using interviews (the method which has been used most widely in probation research) or whether there is something inherently useful about them, above and beyond these innovative methods we are involved in developing. In essence, I wondered whether we were using innovative methods for the sake of it, or whether we were simply being constrained by what has come before. I think that this is partly a product of the international nature of the research – all subgroups decided to impose some structure on the initial use of their innovative method and I suspect this is because of the different contexts in which we work: there is a need to set parameters when doing comparative research in different legal frameworks, languages and with differing levels of resources  in order to ensure that everyone is focused on the same thing. The answer to this question will, hopefully, come out in due course once we’ve managed to actually do some research and then reflect on the process which will result, again hopefully, in a special issue of the European Journal of Probation on using innovative methods when researching probation. For now though, all members of the subgroup which is using practice diaries have agreed to pilot our tool with at least one practitioner in each jurisdiction and will report back at the next meeting in Belfast in October where, I’m sure, we’ll all be engaged in yet more interesting (and sometimes thorny) discussions about how best to go about conducting comparative research into the practise of offender super vision.

Every picture tells a story: Bratislava reflections

This post comes from Gwen Robinson, co-leader of the Working Group on Practising Supervision….

In our first year, Working Group 3 (Practising Supervision) attracted members from 16 countries and the focus of our work was the completion of an overview of empirical research on the practice(s) of offender supervision in those jurisdictions. The culmination of that work was a chapter which will appear in the collection Offender Supervision in Europe. The chapter was written by myself and Kerstin Svensson, along with 19 associate authors who, in close cooperation, produced thorough and thoughtful reviews of research in their own jurisdictions. Kerstin and I are immensely proud of the work of our group in its first year, and have had the pleasure of meeting and working with our many new colleagues. The picture below was taken at the end of the meeting of our Working Group in Bratislava, which took place over two half-days on 25-26 October 2013. The picture shows 16 of us, representing 12 jursidictions, and I think it is a good illustration of the warm relationships that have developed within the group, and which doubtless facilitate our effectiveness as a research team with a shared mission.

Working Group 3: Practising Supervision

Working Group 3: Practising Supervision

So, what is our mission in the second year of our work? In common with the other Working Groups within the Action, we are now turning our attention to the tricky but fascinating business of comparison, with a focus on methodological discussions. Prior to the Bratislava meeting, Kerstin and I proposed that our group might focus its discussions on some areas of practice that could be said to be universal – i.e. common across all jurisdictions, and therefore (potentially) viable topics for comparative research. As Kerstin put it, we have sought similarities as our starting point. In setting the agenda for Year 2 we were also mindful of one of the key findings of our review of research in Year 1: namely, that relatively little attention has been paid by researchers to the ‘everyday’ of offender supervision practice. Far more attention has been devoted to examining discrete processes, such as risk assessment and the writing of pre-sentence reports (to give just 2 examples). Our topics for discussion on the first day in Bratislava, then, were ‘the working alliance’ (between offender and supervisor) and ‘a day in the life’ of offender supervision, and we heard presentations from Andrea Donker (The Netherlands) on the first topic, and Kerstin Svensson (Sweden) and Anne Worrall (England & Wales) on the second.

On the second day, our discussions began to move firmly in the direction of exploring methodological issues, and we split into three sub-groups to consider the potential of three approaches – observation, practice diaries and visual methods – to studying aspects of the ‘everyday’ of offender supervision. In different ways, each of the sub-groups sought to think about how to expose aspects of practice which are normally hidden from view. This is a topic which chimes with some work I have been doing recently and which I elaborated in a paper at the European Society of Criminology conference in Budapest in September. This paper set out to examine and explain the relative neglect of community sanctions and measures in the ‘punishment and society’ literature, and one of its arguments concerned the relative invisibility of this part of the penal field – both literally and in the public imagination – especially when compared to prisons and imprisonment. I noted that a Google Images search for terms like ‘probation’ simply tends to confirm the lack of iconography in this area: what images there are tend to depict people doing what is presumably unpaid work in the community; or else two people sitting on either side of a desk , apparently engaged in discussion. Quite frankly, they could be just about anyone, discussing anything. These are far from memorable images, and highly unlikely to capture the public imagination. They seem to confirm Mike Nellis’s recent observation that “probation…is not very photogenic [and] the great majority of people have no source of information about what probation does” (2012).

With this in mind, our sub-group on visual methods has made plans to pilot a method which will involve asking practitioners to capture aspects of their practice and working environment using photography. We want to explore the ways in which practitioners, given the opportunity, would choose to depict and represent their work, and to explore what the images they produce might tell us about what is the same, as well as what is different, from workers’ perspectives, between jurisdictions.

With this project in mind, I spoke this week to a friend who works as a Probation Service Officer in a busy office in an English city. I outlined briefly our proposal, and was encouraged by his enthusiastic response to the idea of being one of a few of the ‘image-makers’ in our pilot study. In fact, he seemed eager to get started straight away, and was positive about the idea of finding one or two other probation workers to ‘have a go’. From my perspective, this is wonderful and exciting (though we can’t proceed until I have obtained ethical approval from my University). My friend is a very creative person and will, I think, enjoy producing images of his work. I also hope he will enjoy the small opportunity this project will offer to exercise some control and make choices in his working environment. Because at the present time, all probation workers in England & Wales are waiting for someone else to decide their future within the new structures for probation work devised by the Coalition Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme. Early next year, the 10,000 or so probation workers in England & Wales will learn whether they will be working in the newly constituted National Probation Service (principally working in the courts, conducting risk assessments and managing high risk offenders), or one of 21 new ‘Community Rehabilitation Companies’ which will be formed to take over around 70% of the work currently done by the 35 Probation Trusts with low- and medium-risk offenders (for further information about this, see: This is by far the most radical ‘reform’ of probation in its 101 year history, and a difficult time to be a probation worker in England & Wales. Whether we will, in our small pilot project, see visual evidence of this radical restructuring of probation work, and its impact on probation workers, remains to be seen.  

Social work and offender supervision: local and/or national services?

Those of you that read yesterday’s post, and Lol and Wendy’s excellent report, will know about the proposed changes to probation in England and Wales. Rather fewer people may be aware that the Scottish Government has recently issued a consultation paper on the future of community justice in Scotland. There are three options, one of which is the development, for the first time, of a national social work community justice service. Currently we have 32 local authorities as the bodies responsible for offender supervision services and 8 Community Justice Authorities that form strategic plans to reduce reoffending and allocate resources. Last night, I contributed to a debate in Edinburgh organised by the Scottish Association for the Study of Offending on this topic. I argued somewhat controversially (me being an ex-local authority social worker) for a national service. The text of my speech follows below. Though it relates to a peculiarly Scottish situation, the issues that it raises will perhaps be familiar in many jurisdictions. I’d be delighted therefore to hear reactions from people in different systems…

For a national community justice service

I’m never sure how to approach debates. To be honest, I’m more suited to the inquisitorial that the adversarial approach. People may expect something combative tonight, but I think the stakes are too high, and my level of certainty about these questions is too low, to deliver a trenchant or confident position. So I’m going to try to offer a balanced but not uncritical argument in favour of a national community justice service, more in the spirit of opening up than closing down the question of the best future for community justice in Scotland.

Let me start by making clear two things for which I am NOT arguing. Firstly, I’m not in favour of a single correctional service, linking community justice and the prison service – and I’m extremely wary of anything that might be a staging post on the way to that outcome. Secondly, I’m not arguing against the centrality of social work knowledge, values and skills in delivering community justice; indeed, as you’ll see, I’m arguing precisely that we need to reform structures in order to enhance and preserve the best of social work in the criminal justice system.

Time is tight, so I’m going to confine myself to making a few remarks about 5 ‘P’s:

  • Social work practice
  • Social work priorities
  • Partnerships
  • Politics
  • Principles

Social work practice

Back in the 1960s, when generic social work within local authorities was being created, there were three main arguments for doing so.

The first (and best, in my view) was that the various professionals who worked to support a wide range of people to make positive changes in challenging social contexts shared and required a common body of knowledge, the same sorts of skills, and that their practice needed to be underwritten by the same values. But this argument has been progressively weakened both by the vast expansion in the range of knowledge relevant to social work practice in its different contexts, and by the dawning recognition that we also face quite different and distinctive ethical challenges in criminal justice, even if we share common values with our social work colleagues — values incidentally which others outside of social work also share.

The second argument was that it was inefficient and ineffective to have multiple different professionals going in and out of the same households, engaging with the same families. But this argument was based on the misconception that one multi-tasking general practitioner could sort out what we now rather unfortunately call ‘problem families’. They couldn’t, and they didn’t – the problems proved too complex and the needs too disparate. General practitioners are fine for minor ailments, managing chronic conditions and making referrals to specialists, but they aren’t what we need when our problems are acute and complex – and today’s criminal justice problems are acute and complex, perhaps more so than they were in the 60s.

The third argument was that generic practitioners needed to be structurally and organizationally linked to others providing a wide range of universal or targeted local services – in education, housing, leisure and recreation, and so on. A good aspiration, no doubt, but has history borne it out? As a criminal justice social worker in the 1980s, I don’t recollect much sense of common purpose or shared commitment with or from my colleagues in housing (who often seemed to want to keep my clients out) or those in education or leisure and recreation (who often seemed to want to get them out). There was some common cause with those welfare rights officers and community development practitioners working within social work departments, but little evidence otherwise of a genuinely corporate local authority-wide commitment to ex-offender reintegration; too often, that was seen as the job of social work rather than of the local authority as a whole.


This takes me on to my second ‘P’ – Priorities. The travails of criminal justice social work weren’t just about its relationships with other local authority services; they were about its position within social work. Put simply, it wasn’t a top priority in the new departments — and in a sense it was right that it wasn’t. The discovery of child abuse in the 1970s made childcare and protection the core professional concern of social work; the closure of long-stay hospitals for people with mental health problems or learning difficulties in the 1980s and 90s made adult social care its volume business. Yes it’s true that prisons riots and suicides, and the national standards and 100% funding that they produced, rescued criminal justice social work from its position as ‘the sick man of the criminal justice system’ (a position to which it had fallen, according to one eminent sheriff as early as the mid-1970s). But the net effect of all of these changes was that by the early 1990s, when I qualified as a social worker, there were no generic social work teams to join. And yet, eager as I was to do criminal justice work, I was told that I needed to get ‘generic’ experience. ‘Where?’, I asked naively? Well, in a childcare team of course.

This nonsense of course revealed the prevailing view about the core business and concerns of social work; and introduced me to the marginalization of criminal justice social work within social work. It took me a little longer to learn about the marginalization of criminal justice social work within criminal justice. But in due course I learned that lesson too – both in practice and from research – and have come to understand the kind of professional insecurity and defensiveness that this double marginalization produces.

Frankly, my view is that the marginalization to which CJSW practitioners are subject has stunted the development of a key professional group which needs an ambitious, expansive and assertive approach to their engagement with judges, prison staff, civil servants and even penal politics.


But before getting on to politics, a brief word on my third ‘P’: partnerships. Those elusive intra-local authority partnerships to which I have already referred still matter – even if the shrinking role of local authorities in providing public housing diminishes their value a little. But surely the lesson of the last 20 years or so – the lessons of Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements and of the Community Justice Authorities — is that in order to develop and deliver effective community justice we need a much broader series of partnerships far beyond the local authority – partnerships with police, with prisons, with third sector organisations, with health, with social landlords, with FE providers, and with many others.

Admittedly, criminal justice social work and community justice authorities have been making real progress in this respect, but do these wider partnerships require a local authority locus? Being in the local authority doesn’t seem to have assisted much in joining up criminal justice social work and community justice with community planning partnerships or community safety agendas. Maybe it’s time to recognize that partnerships are sometimes better negotiated from a more independent position where the roles and responsibilities of each contributor are more carefully and explicitly negotiated.


Moving on to my fourth ‘P’ — Politics – albeit by a slightly convoluted route — there is a serious practical problem, which has political consequences, that arises from generic local authority social work structures.  Hardly anyone can be promoted more than two or three times and stay a criminal justice specialist. The effect of this is that criminal justice social work since its inception has lacked a cadre of dedicated, expert leaders; leaders rooted in an appreciation of the frontline challenges of the job, but also with the skills and experience that would enable them to provide inspiring professional leadership; to represent the profession publically; and to sit down with, or when necessary stand up to, the Chief Executive of the Prison Service, the Chief Constable, the senior law officers, the Sentencing Commission (if we ever get one) – and even the Cabinet Secretary.

Though the Association of Directors of Social Work’s Criminal Justice Standing Committee has worked hard at trying to represent criminal justice social work in political and strategic conversations, the reality is that criminal justice social work lacks compelling leadership and convincing representation nationally – the Scottish Prison Commission recognized that; the Commission on Women Offenders confirmed it.

I admit there is a risk that a national service would be more exposed to political interference. What might seem attractive when we have a relatively liberal and progressive Cabinet Secretary may seem less so if and when he is replaced by another of a different ilk. But to hanker for the days when Scottish criminal justice could simply hide from politics is both wrong in principle and, in any case, a forlorn hope. Devolution has changed Scottish justice. Justice is a public issue – as it should be. Rather than hiding from politics, community justice needs to be much more proactively engaged with it; playing its part in raising the quality of public debate. A national structure and the right national leader should make that more possible.

There is one further political point – perhaps even a constitutional one. One of the arguments in favour of local authority service delivery is about local democratic accountability. But I think this is a weak argument in respect of community justice Justice services – though they need to be locally adapted and locally delivered – have distinctive relationships with legal processes and to the criminal justice system. In important ways, these services cannot and should not be subject to the will of local electorate or of their representatives in the same way as, for example, refuse collections or even school organization and educational priorities. 100% funding recognized that difference, but hasn’t resolved it; there can be no post-code lottery in criminal justice provision, if justice is to mean anything


And this conundrum – of local responsiveness without undue or unjust variation – takes me to my final ‘P’ – which concerns questions of principle. In 1961, the Morison Committee criticized Scottish probation for insisting on a local authority facing structure rather than the court-facing one that applied in England and Wales at the time. The erstwhile Scottish member of the Committee – Councilor John Mains – demurred; arguing that there was no evidence to support one structure over the other, and that the local connection to other forms of social work was critically important.

He was partly right and partly wrong. The connection to social work that matters most is not organizational; it is principled and professional. Social work is bigger than local authorities; it predates them and it has always expanded far beyond their ambit. Indeed, in most of the world there is no such uncritical association between local authorities and social work as sometimes seems to apply here; social work survives and thrives in health, in justice, in education, and in the public, voluntary and private sectors.

What matters most about social work is not where it is located but what it stands for. In criminal justice that means firstly, the insistence on the link between criminal and social justice; secondly, the commitment to the human rights of those most vulnerable to their neglect (meaning both victims and offenders); and thirdly, the enduring belief in the capacity of human beings to learn, develop and grow beyond their problems.

My honest assessment – based on evaluating the successes and limitations of criminal justice social work within the local authorities, and on looking at other systems elsewhere, is that the fulfillment of those principles is now better served by a social work led community justice service that is fully in criminal justice – on equal terms with other national criminal justice agencies, but which also faces and engages thoughtfully with the communities it serves in partnership with others. Only a national structure – in our very small but beautifully formed nation – can deliver the professional leadership and political voice that community justice urgently requires. Only a national structure can offer talented staff a proper career structure – one that truly develops, values and nurtures their distinctive expertise – and that frees up a skilled workforce, in collaboration with other partners, to deliver the kind of community justice that Scotland needs and deserves.

Maps and Territories: WG3 Practising offender supervision

This blog post comes from Nicola Carr of Queen’s University Belfast, a member of the working group on practising supervision.

The ‘practice’ of offender supervision in Europe is diverse and is profoundly shaped by its political, cultural, administrative and professional contexts.  Work to date, such as Kalmhout and Durnescu’s (2008) Probation in Europe and the CEP’s Domice project, which maps the case management of adults across jurisdictional correctional systems, provide rich contextual information and can be considered as ‘maps of the territory’. The focus of the Practising Offender Supervision Working Group, whose first task is collating an overview of empirical research on aspects of practice from each country, is aiming towards a more finely drawn cartography of this territory.

At the first meeting of the working group in Brussels in October 2012, members presented overviews of research from their jurisdictions grouped around the following broad themes:

  • The roles, characteristics, recruitment and training of key actors in the delivery of offender supervision;
  • Interactions and relationships between key actors in the delivery of offender supervision and other relevant professionals;
  • The delivery/practice/performance of offender supervision;
  • The role of tools and technologies in the delivery of offender supervision;
  • The management, supervision and/or regulation of practitioners and their practice.

Unsurprisingly, the extent and nature of research that has been done to date varies widely across Europe and reflects broader issues such as the history of service provision and the scholarship tradition in this area. For example, there are differences between countries with newly formed probation services and those that are decades old.  Defining the ‘field’ of research can also be complex particularly given the range of actors that may be involved in the practice of offender supervision.

Some noteworthy themes from the literature gathered to date include the fact that research tends to focus on discrete aspects of practice such as report-writing or assessment practices and less on the day-to-day process of supervision. Relatedly, research (certainly in the UK context) has mostly tended to focus on practitioners’ own accounts of their practice in the form of interviews and/or questionnaires and less on actual practice, e.g. through ethnographic or observational research. Reasons for the predominance of certain research methods can be posited. For one, ethnographic or observational-type approaches are much more resource intensive than interview or questionnaire-based methodologies.  The question of whether research is funded and by whom also frames the subject of inquiry.

It is also interesting to note also that while much attention is paid in policy terms to inter-agency working, there is limited research exploring the relationships and work between actors and agencies in this sphere.  The broader questions of the research context and environment are important considerations and the discussion of the working group  has helped to draw out some of these themes.


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