Personalisation in probation services

As part of the CoSIE Project – a pan-European scheme looking at the co-creation of public services – Interserve has piloted new ways of co-designing more personalised probation services. Within the pilot process, one of the co-creation tools adopted has been Community Reporting which has been used to gather insight stories from staff and service user on their perspectives of probation services. This feature article examines the stories gathered as part of this process them through the lens of personalisation, exploring what can be deciphered from the stories about how probation services can better meet the needs of the individuals involved. The overarching message from this is that personalisation is not something that can be delivered by staff to service users in a linear fashion. Rather what must be established is a working culture of personalisation – for both staff and users – that permeates all aspects of service delivery. 

Understanding Me

The stories highlight the importance of listening to people as “one size doesn't fit all”. A literal example of this can be found in an unpaid work story, in which a person was made to work in boots that were too big. Additionally, this person was the only female on the unpaid work site and felt uncomfortable with the “sexism”. The lack of understanding of her needs as a female – practically and socially – meant that for this individual, the experience of unpaid work was not as positive as it could have been. 

When people’s individual needs and circumstances are taken into account, the experience of receiving a conviction and probation can be less traumatic. A storyteller describes, her wellbeing suffered during the court process as she did not know if she would be sent to prison. As she states, it was “hard saying goodbye to the kids” prior to attending court. However, during the hearing the judge took on-board her “family circumstances” and that she would “do anything to stay with her family”, ultimately deciding not to pass a custodial sentence. The individual came out of this process feeling positive as her circumstances and the context of the crime were taken into consideration.

Understanding people’s circumstances is fundamental to providing the support they need to rebuild their lives. Speaking about his experiences of probation, a low risk offender describes how he lost his job and lifestyle. Whilst on probation he felt that he wasn’t given support to get back into employment, which resulted in him feeling “very alone and very isolated”. However, another person describes his experiences of probation as a “positive one” as it allowed him to learn about himself and why he behaved in a way that led to his conviction. Opportunities to obtain personalised advice and to discover more about yourself are key enablers for individuals. 

Getting to know people is essential to providing the right support. As one worker outlines, “it’s about unpicking what has happened in the past to move forward”. For them, hearing people’s stories should be seen as “privilege” as people trust them with details about their lives. It is with both this trust and understanding that professionals are in position to help the people in the probation system to make positive changes in their lives.  

Not Being Judged

A key aspect of personalisation in any service is to see the beneficiary as “an individual and a person”. In terms of probation services, seeing the person you are working with and not just the crime can create more productive relationships between professionals in the sector and the people they work with. Speaking about his experiences of probation, one man highlights the importance of this type of relationship in helping him bring about changes in his own life. Talking about his probation worker, he says she is “not autocratic or authorative, she’s been very supportive”. This has enabled him to “get straight” and overcome his issues with alcohol – “I haven’t had one thought of retreating back to the pub”.

Building these types of relationships involves understanding the stigma surrounding having a conviction and understanding people’s sense of shame upon receiving one. As one man details, he has ‘protected’ himself from this societal stigma by restricting who knows about his conviction to only professionals and his wife - “people haven’t judged because they don’t know”. He describes how he is trying to get on with his life and put the conviction behind him, but he feels judged by his probation worker who keeps bringing up the crime during their sessions. As he states, “Every time I go and see my probation officer, I come out there feeling crap. I dread going… he keeps pushing, I don’t understand why.”

Situations such as the aforementioned one can occur when communication between worker and service user lacks clarity about why certain work is being done around a conviction. This could include explain why things like ‘triggers’ are being explored, or through pushing people out of their comfort zones. Speaking about her experiences of unpaid work, a woman talks about how she didn’t think she could do it and felt great “shame”, particularly around wearing the “nasty orange vest”. At first she was hid away doing work off-the-streets by a “sympathetic” supervisor, but then another supervisor took her outside litter picking. This pushing of boundaries and telling her she “could do it” by the second supervisor enabled her to “face [her] fears” and ultimately overcome her sense of shame. Creating positive relationships enables workers to know when pushing can be positive, and when it is having negative impact. 

Helping Others

Whilst elements of the stories gathered portray negative sentiments towards unpaid work, a number of the stories also highlight the positives aspects of it. One man explains that unpaid work gave him something to do in his life following him and his wife’s convictions. As she went to prison, he found that he was often alone at home – “it was a horrible feeling left by yourself, doing nothing”. Unpaid work offered him something to “get up for” and from doing it he feels he’s paid back his “debt to society”.

The idea ‘giving back’ via unpaid work was highlighted in a number of stories. For one person, it made them feel “as though I was part of society”, whilst another person talked about how “it’s nice to do things in your own town, especially in a hospital”. The time spent giving to others and society provided people with time for reflection, with on person stating that it showed him “what can be achieved, rather than going to prison”.

Giving, or helping others, make us feel good about ourselves. Supporting people to tap into such intrinsic motivations – whether they are staff or users – is a key tool for providing probation services that enable people to identify their sense of purpose and ultimately, sense of self. Both of which contribute to people leading positive lives. For service users in probation, peer mentoring plays a key part in this. Speaking about his experiences of probation, one man states how he “became a peer mentor to help other people in my situation”, whilst another person describes how it was a “light bulb moment” in rebuilding her life and career opportunities. One man, who initially turned down the opportunity to participate in peer mentoring through the belief of his case manager, did eventually get involved and now has “a purpose”.

It is unsurprising that staff’s motivations for working in the sector have similar drivers and characteristics. As a worker states, their motivation is “to work with adults to bring about positive change”, whilst another worker states how they wanted a role where they “could really support people”. Reminding staff of these motivations can be useful during periods of uncertainty or change by focusing them on their original objectives in entering this career. 

From Insights to Change

We feel that the insights in the stories gathered should be seen as stimuli to provoke further thinking, disrupt the status quo and give the opportunity for new ways of doing things to emerge. Therefore, working with Interserve and the Community Reporters, we have produced a toolkit for professionals working in the probation sector to use in order to start to create a culture of personalisation within their workplace. You can download the toolkit here.

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