Perspective On Transitioning From Legacy To New Probation Service Structures

Perspective On Transitioning From Legacy To New Probation Service Structures

This guest post from Kyle Hart aims to contribute to contemporary discussions surrounding the UK probation service, and wider international criminal justice dialogue, concerning the topics of professional identity, organisational culture, and structural change.

I will argue in this post that we need a thorough understanding of the transitional process that probation practitioners working within the UK have undergone, especially considering the reunification of probation services in 2021. This understanding is pivotal, I will suggest, for the ongoing administration and development of services both here in the UK and internationally.

We can begin by seeking a comprehensive understanding of the impact that organisational restructuring has had on the delivery of frontline probation services. Probation services are delivered in the UK by practitioners who are still adapting to new organisational cultures, and often having to deal with adopting new professional identities, whilst also coping with the loss and separation of their old professional identities.

By reflecting on the impact of organisational changes on practitioners themselves, it is possible to shine a light on the challenges and opportunities that arise from merging different operational cultures and practices. This reconfiguration of our understanding is crucial if we want to ensure that probation services remain responsive, efficient, and tailored to the needs of the communities they serve.

Gaining a rich understanding of the perceptions, experiences, modes of engagement, and the morale of frontline practitioners, is critical to the success of probation in the UK, and one can suppose on a much broader global scale too.

Identifying precise factors that affect frontline practitioners’ confidence, competence and commitment offers benefits to UK and international policymakers, senior leaders, and middle managers. This is particularly relevant when we are devising and implementing strategies to support practitioners through change, such as enhancing professional development practices and informing future operational activity in a bid to maintain high-quality practice and performance.

Furthermore, by investigating these types of transitional processes and any impact they have, we can reflect on many constructive insights, such as the importance of maintaining a balance between managerial and operational demands. Structural changes can often detract from the fundamental purpose of probation, which is to facilitate rehabilitation and protect the public. Staying true to this core ethos requires, therefore, continuous evaluation and adaptation of policies and practices.

Navigating the complexities of organisational change is not easy. Understanding the effect of change can help embed new technologies, methodologies, and legislative changes into operational delivery. Leaders and managers need to have insight into these issues if they want to foster innovation among practitioners, improve service quality, efficiency, and enhance the effectiveness of interventions for those people under probation supervision.

Generating discussions of these topics at an international level will, hopefully, contribute to broader conversation on criminal justice reform, both within the UK and transnationally. There are lessons that can be learned from the UK’s experiences of changing and merging the structures of probation services, and these lessons can inform similar initiatives that might be experienced within other countries.

By promoting international collaboration concerning organisational transitions, and the sharing of best practices when exploring wider community justice issues, we can begin to evaluate the fundamentals that will enable the progressing of probation services within a global justice setting. This approach offers many benefits when it comes to ensuring that structural changes are implemented fairly, that support the workforce, that upholds the integrity of probation work, and that ultimately contributes to safer communities.

A recent study I conducted, ‘Exploring Probation Practitioners – transition to the new unified service’, conducted within England’s’ West Midlands region in 2023, explored probation practitioners’ transition to a new unified service. I undertook an exploratory study on the transition of ‘legacy’ National Probation Service (NPS) and Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) probation practitioners operating within a West Midlands Probation Delivery Unit (PDU). I explored the thoughts, feelings and mindsets of the practitioners that were now working within a unified service structure.

Although there was a general national reunification of probation services in the UK in 2021, practitioners working within the West Midlands experienced arguably more significant changes in early 2022. There was an additional organisational restructure within this region, termed ‘structural alignment’, that aimed to increase the cohesion and makeup of legacy NPS and CRC practitioners, in order that they could operate from the same spaces. With the aim of instigating blended caseloads and a reduction in the feeling of ‘us and them’.

My study was supported by the Sir Graham Smith Award offered through the Probation Institute ( It focussed on examining how this structural realignment had impacted the confidence, competence and commitment of probation practitioners from different backgrounds within the unified probation service.

My research sought to capture the experiences, thoughts and feelings of probation practitioners following the transition to this new service. I investigated the extent to which the previous work experiences of colleagues within either legacy NPS or CRC settings influenced their current professional identity and performance within the new unified structure.

Utilising both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, the study engaged nineteen probation practitioners across four distinct staffing groups. Each representing different legacy affiliations and experiences. The findings revealed variations in confidence, competence and commitment levels across these groups, with each group reflecting unique challenges and perspectives in adapting to the new unified culture and structures.

Several significant themes emerged, including concerns over deskilling, the need for more comprehensive training and support, varying concerns about professional identity change, complex issues of loyalty, as well as differing perspectives on the new unified service’s effectiveness and coherence.

I recommended that there is a need for enhanced practitioner confidence, competence and commitment within the new unified probation service. I felt it was important to highlight the need to address the diverse experiences and demands of legacy practices, both during and after an organisational transition process.

The report gave me an opportunity to explore the multiple challenges and opportunities associated with integrating diverse practitioner groups within a unified public service structure. I aimed to establish a foundation for future research and policy development that could support effective probation practice and service delivery here in the UK and oversees.

The relevance of this report to an international network of criminal justice practitioners is multifaceted and practical. Given the global interest in effective criminal justice practices, the experiences and lessons drawn from the structural alignment within this West Midlands PDU in England offers valuable insights for probation and correctional services worldwide.

Some of these key areas of relevance include:

  1. Structural Reform and Integration: Many countries are grappling with how to effectively structure their probation services to enhance efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness. This report’s detailed exploration of the challenges and outcomes of merging previously separate entities (NPS and CRC) provides a case study in the complexities of such reforms. International practitioners can learn from the UK’s experiences, particularly regarding the balance between centralisation and local service delivery, and the impact of structural changes on service quality and staff morale.
  2. Professional Identity and Staff Morale: The impact of structural and organisational changes on probation practitioners’ professional identity, morale, and job satisfaction is a universal concern. This report’s findings on how different ‘legacy’ groups of practitioners adapted to the new unified service – each facing unique challenges – highlights the importance of managing change in a way that respects and supports staff professional identities and sense of legitimacy. These insights can inform strategies for leadership and change management in criminal justice organisations globally.
  3. Training and Development Needs: The transition experiences detailed in this report underscore the ongoing need for comprehensive, practical training and professional development opportunities, especially in times of significant organisational change. The importance of equipping staff with the skills and knowledge to navigate new structures and expectations is relevant for probation services worldwide, particularly in ensuring the effective supervision and support of those under probation.
  4. Service Delivery and Practitioner Confidence: The report reveals how structural alignment affected practitioners’ confidence, competence, and commitment, with implications for service delivery quality. This aspect is critically relevant to international practitioners focused on enhancing the effectiveness of probation services, highlighting the need for supportive structures that bolster practitioner confidence and ensure high standards of practice.
  5. Policy Development and Implementation: The recommendations provided in the report for improving confidence, competence, and commitment within the unified service offer a blueprint for policy development and implementation that could be adapted and applied in different jurisdictions. Understanding the factors that contribute to successful integration and staff engagement in probation services can guide policy and decision-makers in designing and implementing reforms.
  6. International Collaboration and Learning: Finally, this report contributes to the body of knowledge that supports international collaboration and learning in the field of criminal justice reform. By sharing experiences, challenges, and solutions, practitioners across different countries can develop a more nuanced understanding of how to navigate the complexities of probation services in diverse legal and cultural contexts.

Finally, I hope my research contributes towards global discussions that raise open questions about practitioner professional identity, organisational culture and structural change. I hope the insights from my research have broad relevance, offering lessons and considerations that can inform the development, reform, and improvement of probation and correctional services around the world and in many different jurisdictional contexts.

Rob Watson

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