In recent years, growing attention has been given to the potential benefits of Service User Involvement (SUI) in the criminal justice system. However, much of the research focus has been within prisons. With this in mind, HM Inspectorate of Probation undertook research within probation services, including a survey of providers and site visits to speak to both service users and staff.
In the spirit of SUI, the project was facilitated by the input of five peer researchers from Revolving Doors Agency, all of whom had ‘lived experience’ of the criminal justice system. Through a series of co-production sessions, these peer researchers played an active role in shaping and sense-checking the research.
From our fieldwork, we found examples of excellent work being undertaken by dedicated staff and service users. Service users in our research identified benefits at both a personal and organisational level. SUI could facilitate self-efficacy, social benefits, professional development and desistance from further offending. It could also allow them to have a positive impact on both other service users and on probation service delivery. One peer mentor emphasised the positive impact which SUI had on his life:
“I never had the opportunity to realise my potential earlier. Now that’s what it’s [SUI] given us.”
The challenges identified by service users included the time commitment required, the lack of acceptance by some staff, as well as difficulties in engaging others. As one representative from the service user council stated:
“There was a big fear about 'Why are these ex-offenders coming in here kind of telling us what to do?'”.
For staff, SUI was seen to be beneficial in gaining service users’ perspectives, improving service delivery, utilising service users’ skills, and providing a refocus for probation work. A director from one probation provider recalled a key reason why he believed SUI was of value:
“The power of it for me is just people being heard. Sometimes you feel that they haven’t been used to being heard”.
Specific challenges were also identified. These included integrating the work successfully into probation culture, engaging a representative range of service users, negotiating/recognising boundaries of service users working alongside staff, the current lack of investment in terms of both time and resources, and difficulties in implementing SUI proposals. The need to balance ‘lived’ with ‘learned’ experience was highlighted at a number of sites, as explained by one responsible officer:
“I think lived experience is really valuable. But if you are running around shouting that lived experience is more valuable than learned experience, then I think we’re on dodgy ground.”
Based on our research findings, we were able to identify a number of key enablers to assist with future delivery of SUI. These included the following:
- open discussions with staff;
- strategic direction to support the balance between the value placed on ‘lived’ versus ‘learned’ experience;
- clear guidance to facilitate boundaries in SUI work;
- maintaining a focus on the welfare of service users involved in SUI; and
- dedicated funding and staff resources.
As a final thought, we found that Transforming Rehabilitation appeared to have undermined much of the SUI work taking place prior to its implementation, with this only now beginning to re-establish itself. Bearing in mind that the delivery of probation services is to undergo further change, it is essential that the valuable work currently taking place is not disrupted or lost.
The full research report (Service user involvement in the review and improvement of probation services) can be accessed here.
HM Inspectorate of Probation has also published its own strategy for engaging service users.
For updates about our research and inspections, please follow us @HMIProbation on Twitter.
Author: Dr Laura Buckley, Research Officer at HMI Probation