New standards for probation
What difference does
We at HMI Probation have been thinking for a while about why and how we inspect. That may sound a bit odd, but it is not quite as daft as it sounds.
To inspect is to examine closely or to inquire carefully. Over time, an agreed view of what good inspection should achieve has developed. I first saw it set out in a paper in the Modern Law Review: inspection of any public service should focus on its conformity to standards; the quality of service it delivers and the quality of its management arrangements. The author, Professor Stephen Shute also argued that it should cover the organisation’s efficiency and value for money, but today I want to focus on the first three requirements.
Shining a light
Professor Shute argued that by shining a light on these things, inspection provides those carrying political or executive responsibility, as well as the general public with an independent way of holding agencies to account and testing whether the services they offer are being delivered appropriately. He also argued that inspection can drive up quality in the criminal justice system. Done well, it shines a light, holds people to account and – critically – it should improve services, over time.
Most rational people would agree that inspection should show whether the body being inspected is conforming to standards, but of course, standards in probation have waxed and waned in recent years. With Transforming Rehabilitation, probation providers were freed up to a large extent from established standards, and encouraged to innovate and find new ways of rehabilitating offenders.
Inspection can drive improvement
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the new found freedoms are not yet working as intended, but that is not my focus today. Instead I am speaking of inspection, good inspection. Where there are no clear, agreed, published standards to show what good quality work looks like, then inspecting is less effective than it can be. Those inspected are not always sure what is expected of them, how their service might be judged, and how and where to focus so as to improve. That is a hole we want to fill.
As HMI Probation, we can produce inspection standards, to show what we are looking for when we inspect. But for standards to do more – to drive improvement in services – then they should be built by consensus. Inspection alone cannot improve quality. Instead it requires the combined efforts of providers, professionals and staff, commissioners and funders, and inspectors, all working towards a single vision of high-quality probation services, informed by listening to those receiving those services. It is that single view, single vision that is so important for us all.
It is essential then that those who will be inspected against standards are involved in their development. We have been working with the NPS, CRCs and others in workshops across England and Wales to develop and refine a new set of standards for probation services delivered by the NPS and CRCs. We think we have a good set of draft standards as a result, and now we want to see if others agree.