Probation service leaders need support to implement reforms


So, the government intends to via a combination of outsourcing and payment by results. While much has been said about risk issues, payment mechanisms and fragmentation, the subject of "leadership" now, in the future, and during transition, has been absent. A couple of weeks on from the announcement I've been reflecting on what the changes may mean for me and for the leadership of the "transformation of rehabilitation".

In my current role, I am both the chief executive of (a non-departmental public body of the ministry of justice) and chair of the . Aside from my day job of managing around 6,000 offenders to deliver the orders from the court, protect the public and reduce reoffending, I also lead on several pieces of work to join up the criminal justice system and the community safety arena across the county.

For example, I currently lead work to jointly commission independent domestic violence advisers for the county. This will bring together a range of funders – including police, local government and health – to enhance provision and reduce inefficiencies. This is the type of work that cannot easily be built into future contracting arrangements. It occurs due to probation's unique position straddling criminal justice and community safety and its track record of successfully leading change by bringing a range of agencies together.

It is not just leadership, it is authority and finance that allows me to play this role. I have sufficient budget flexibility to invest and disinvest in what works to meet local priorities to reduce reoffending, but I also have oversight of all work with offenders to protect the public. The two work hand in glove.

Under the government plans, public sector probation would focus purely on public protection, and the winners of the rehabilitation services contracts would deliver reductions in reoffending. The statutory probation agency could continue to sit on boards, but unless it manages the contracts for rehabilitation it will have little authority (and no budget) to influence reconviction rates. There is an irony in this because police and health services have recently moved to more local commissioning models – as some government departments devolve, it appears others centralise.

Leading during the transition will obviously be a huge challenge and dwarfs what Kent Probation has achieved over the past five years (including real-term budget reductions of 23% without compulsory redundancies).

The reforms do, however, present some real opportunities to increase reductions in reoffending, particularly through the new work with prisoners sentenced to under 12 months and by the incentives that payment by results can generate if designed correctly. There is huge potential to bring together the best of public, private and voluntary sector skills in different social and commercial vehicles to bid for and deliver the work in the proposed 16 geographical areas.

The real prize will be if players can come together in genuinely joint ventures that move away from traditional contracting arrangements. Negotiating these arrangements and commercial business planning will be the new leadership challenge for many chief executives who choose to lead a significant part of their service out of the traditional public sector. Suddenly, my chartered accountancy background is coming into its own as I find myself discussing working capital requirements, equity versus social investors, payment mechanisms and the like.

For others, the challenge will be the likely creation of a national probation trust from the existing 35 trusts – a pretty significant merger, requiring the best of public sector leadership.

It is clear that the government needs the leadership of the probation service to ensure changes are managed safely, business as usual is not compromised, and that the new market is vibrant, outcome-focused and successful. It would be helpful, therefore, if more thought were given to how best to support leaders over the next two years in their biggest challenge to date.

Sarah Billiald is chief executive of and chair of the