Probation reform – we can make a real difference

Nathan Dick

We are at an important crossroads in the long and winding road of probation reform. Many might view the recent announcement as coming full circle, back to a National Probation Service. I think it’s an opportunity to do some radical re-design, break out of the box and really ask ourselves what we want from this new era of probation services. For too long we’ve been circling around questions of structure and commercial processes and ignoring the end user. We can put an end to that. 

Lived experience forum member (Manchester inquiry session):

No one ever starts off with that question of what do you want to get out of this. That would make such a difference.

Lived experience forum members have consistently told us how important probation is to them. Our members regularly tell us of how important they think probation services are, that they have the potential to change lives. At the same time, they tell us about their disappointment with probation services and about the various times they feel let down by the service. They tell us that they want to play a role in making it better. We’ve listened and we’re taking action.

Lived experience forum member (Manchester inquiry session):

My probation officer, it’s a calling to her, she has too many on her caseload but she goes above and beyond.

A lived experience inquiry (like a parliamentary select committee, but very different)

Revolving Doors has an ambition to utilise lived experience insight to build a smarter justice system. We want to do that by bringing lived experience to the heart of decision-making with the aim of embedding it and making it mainstream. To do that we’ve designed a ‘lived experience inquiry’.

Our inquiry model is based on the Design Council’s evolved Double Diamond technique to gather evidence. We started with a simple question – What would you change to improve probation services? We don’t expect the answer to be simple, but we need to start big, and then we work with our forum members (and others) to develop solutions.



So here are the steps we’ll take:

  1. Discover the ideas, the problems, what works, and start to see the big picture.
  2. Define what we want to focus on, what can we do that’s possible and will have impact
  3. Develop each of our solutions by adding detail to the design
  4. Deliver it in the real world by working alongside leaders in the probation service

What have we ‘discovered’

It’s early days. Our first two ‘oral evidence sessions’ were on 2 and 9 June, and we’re already incredibly excited about its potential. The quotes through this blog highlight some of the input we have received so far as part of our discovery phase.  But here are a few themes that seem to be emerging:

  • A good probation officer makes all the difference. Investing in recruitment and training of probation officers is key to a successful probation service. We have heard many stories about compassionate, empathetic, and resourceful probation officers that go “above and beyond” and inspire people to do better.
  • Consistency of probation officer is so important, yet completely erratic. We have heard too many stories of multiple, often unexplained, changes of probation officers, in one case 12 over 3 years. It erodes trust, damages relationships, and hinders progress.
  • Getting released from prison is chaotic. That first attendance at the probation office on the day of release is seen as bureaucratic, unhelpful, a tick box and of little benefit to anyone. Do we always need to do it?
  • Communication breakdown is too common. The importance of regular communication is clear, but too often it seems hampered by 5-minute meeting or an administrative error. When things go wrong people feel left in the dark and blamed for mistakes they didn’t make.
  • Forcing people to change doesn’t work. The sequencing of interventions is vital – making sure that people are ready to engage with services, that they are prepared to succeed and not set up to fail.
  • Empowered to become a citizen, not a service user. Probation services at their best engage someone with the community, link them to support networks and get them involved in the local activities (that aren’t offender-related programmes).
  • The power of lived experience needs to be valued. The gap between probation officers and people who may appear unwilling to engage was so often bridged by someone with lived experience who could support the development of trusting relationships.

Lived experience forum member (Manchester inquiry session):

I got letters that I had breached when I had attended. I did get an explanation – but I think it was a bit of a cop out – It came from another office. I was really worried about it. I never got an answer when I called the probation office. I had to travel to the probation office because no one was answering the phone.

Learning as we go

Although we have a clear process for the inquiry, we will co-produce it with our lived experience forum members; they will be at the helm and we will support them with the right tools (facilitation, research, and data analysis) and link them with the right people (Ministers, officials, front line workers, charities, campaigners). We will be taking our time to develop the right solutions that have the potential to make real world and scalable change.

Crucially we need to consider how we develop services that do not produce a vanilla approach to rehabilitation. We will have to consider race, gender, age, location (rural vs urban) and much more.

Lived experience forum member (Manchester inquiry session):

The last probation officer – only had him for about 6 weeks. I got more out of him than anyone else. He gave me a phone number out of hours and said that they could call him in. Really interested in me, and my journey. Phoned me out of hours. It made me feel good, he cared, compassion.

Working with partners

None of this can be achieved without working alongside decision makers. In this instance we want to work closely with MOJ policy, HMPPS Probation Reform Programme, the Professional Recognition Programme and ultimately with the recently appointed Regional Probation Directors.

Lived experience forum member (Manchester inquiry session):

12 probation officers and no explanation why (in 3 years)… ‘didn’t explain’… ‘I turned up at office – ‘oh, you’re no longer with them’ they’d say.

If you want to work with us on this inquiry or think you can help us access people with lived experience of the probation service that have a passion to create change then please do email me at

What next

We will continue to listen to and work with our forums to continue our discovery. In the spirit of that I want to leave you with a quote from our Manchester forum that shows what a difference good probation officer looks like, and what a difference they can make.

Lived experience forum member (Manchester inquiry session):

My last experience was, this woman showed me a lot of compassion, she really, really, helped me. I’ve not experienced that before. My first impressions of her were that she was going to be hard work. She went out of her way to help with my recovery and journey. She gave me things to do, she’d give me bus passes to go to NA meetings. I’d never experienced that before. I’d look forward to seeing her.