Newly appointed Chief Executive for the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI), Amanda Stewart, discusses the role of probation in reducing reoffending, reducing the number of victims and changing lives for safer communities.
Although only newly in post since October 2021, new Chief Executive of PBNI, Amanda Stewart, is no stranger to the services the organisation provides, having interacted with PBNI at various parts of her long-standing justice career.
Having graduated with a degree in community youth work, Stewart’s early career as a youth worker in Belfast enabled a move to the Police Authority and then the Policing Board, at a time when the Patten Report had made wide ranging reforms to policing. Working for the Policing Board from its inception, her experiences spanned various areas, including policing in the community, eventually rising to lead the organisation as Chief Executive.
The newly appointed Chief Executive, who attests to having community work “in my heart” admits to enviously looking on at the Probation Board in the past, believing they have an ethos of being a community-based organisation, working in partnerships to deliver for service users.
“When the opportunity to lead PBNI came up, I felt like I was going back to my core,” she explains.
Alongside working in communities, supervising sentences that must be served in the community, PBNI also work in courts providing pre-sentence reports that assist judges to make decisions; in prisons, preparing prisoners for release subject to licenses; and directly with victims of crime through the Victim Information Scheme.
Stewart explains that partnership working is critical to effective service delivery. “Everything that we do has a knock-on effect to other parts of the justice sector. For example, if we were to scale back some of our work in communities, the result could be a greater number of people going to prison. A large part of my role is ensuring that whatever we do as an organisation, we are involving and bringing along those other parts of the justice system.”
“We know from past experience and trends that desperation drives bad decision making.”
Currently PBNI deal with around 4,200 cases on any given day, the majority of which are in the community. As Stewart explains, no one size fits all in terms of service delivery and so, vitally, every probation officer of PBNI is social work qualified, professionally trained in the assessment and management of risk.
The ability of PBNI staff to tailor services to meet individual need and ultimately provide better outcomes for both the service user and reduce risk to the local community is critical. Stewart believes that this was emphasised by the pandemic.
Around three quarters of all PBNI service users experience addiction and mental health issues, problems that were compounded by the pandemic and effect of lockdowns. “If Covid taught us anything it was about the value of relationships with our service users,” she says. “Having met with a range of service users since taking up post, one of the things that I am most proud of is the feedback that our staff continued to support them in the toughest of times.”
The Chief Executive explains that as an organisation, PBNI were pre-emptive in their approach to lockdowns, recognising the challenges that a move away from business-as-usual would bring and introduced a hybrid model very swiftly, prioritising the most vulnerable and those most in need of face-to-face contact. Additionally, the organisation prioritised their service delivery on domestic abuse and child protection, recognising the likely increase in high-risk cases.
Having experienced a short-term reduction in workload, mainly in relation to court work due to an initial reduction in hearings, she says that not only has the volume of work returned but that she predicts a rise in service users, related to the economic fallout of the pandemic and rising domestic costs.
“We know from past experience and trends that desperation drives bad decision making. That we are likely moving into economic recession not only emphasises the importance of our work within the community with service users but also our programmes around early intervention and driving behavioural change.”
Stewart stresses that continuing to deliver for service users and for staff will be made more difficult by a squeeze on resources. “Stormont’s current inability to secure a multi-annual budget impacts on our ability to plan ahead and maintain momentum in service delivery.”
The Chief Executive believes that PBNI’s evidence given to the Assembly’s Justice Committee prior to the draft budget consultation, emphasising the critical role the organisation plays right across the sector landed with politicians and she remains hopeful ahead of any agreed budget allocation.
“A critical part of our corporate plan will be around the prioritisation of services, for which we have already benchmarked our greatest impact.”
She adds: “We also took the opportunity to emphasise that our reach and our impact goes beyond justice. Rightly so, the Executive has outlined its intention to prioritise health in any agreed budget, but it is important to stress that delivery of health outcomes do not rest solely with the Department of Health.
“The assessments, interventions, and programmes that we provide, aiming to tackle offending related issues such as addiction, mental health, and domestic abuse, much of which is carried out in partnership with community and voluntary groups, feeds into creating a better health system and needs to be adequately resourced.”
Although advocating for adequate resources, Stewart is aware that all public sector service deliverers face challenging times. To this end, she outlines that service prioritisation will be a critical feature of the organisation’s new and soon to be consulted on three-year corporate plan.
“As an organisation we have always strived to deliver all of our expansive range of services to a platinum standard, but the reality is that as we experience an increase in volume and complexity of cases, coupled with the challenges of less resource, we run the risk of spreading ourselves too thin. A critical part of our corporate plan will be around the prioritisation of services, for which we have already benchmarked our greatest impact, and ensuring that we continue with our mission of working with communities to change lives.”
The Chief Executive says that the corporate plan will also seek to build on the prevalence of a greater willingness for collaboration across the public sector. “If Covid-19 had one silver lining it was that as a public sector, we showed ourselves to be resilient, resourceful, and adaptable to change in delivering services. Change occurred quickly in areas where it was assumed delivery at pace was not possible and it is important that now that people have seen the benefits of true collaborative delivery that we keep that momentum and continue to apply the same rigour, resilience and even risk appetite to service delivery going forward.”
Alongside their external work, she understands the need for PBNI to support its own staff. Outlining her understanding that the effort shown by staff to deliver services throughout the pandemic has taken its toll, she sees value in being able to re-evaluate and reset many of the principles that underscore the organisation’s culture.
“As an organisation with social work values we dedicate much of our focus to service users, but I think it is important that we reflect that kindness and empathy internally as well. Our staff have always had to be resilient when you consider the work that they do, some of which can be quite harrowing, and that intensified over the pandemic as we asked people to make their home an extension of our office. That has repercussions and I think going forward I want to ensure that staff feel adequately supported and that we continue to engage with our staff in our decision-making, ensuring that we bring them along.”
Stewart believes that a crucial element to ensuring staff feel valued is achieving pay modernisation, something she has set out as one of her short-term goals for 2022. Currently social workers in the justice sector operate on what the Chief Executive describes as an “antiquated pay scale”, meaning that progress up the pay scale happens at a much slower pace than with their counterparts in other sectors. “If I talk about valuing staff, it is critical that they feel valued in terms of their pay,” she states.
“Covid-19 has shown us that through collaborative working, we can drive change across the justice sector for the betterment of communities.”
Discussing the challenges associated with this, she explains that the sector is struggling to retain qualified staff, even those who wish to stay, at a time when Northern Ireland is experiencing a shortage of social workers.
“The impact is far greater than numbers,” she states. “We are losing experienced staff who have experience of managing high levels of risk. Currently we have around 50 per cent of our staff with less than five years’ experience. Undoubtedly, that presents an opportunity for us to modernise and develop emerging skills, but we also have to ensure there is a balance of experience and equitable pay is a big factor in overcoming that retention challenge.”
Overseeing PBNI’s plans for the future will be a newly constituted, 13-member community-based board, which met for the first time in March. The Chief Executive Officer believes that independent delivery of accountability, oversight, and strategic thinking is an essential element in achieving confidence from local communities.
“Having worked with boards for most of my professional life, I fully appreciate the value a board can bring to an organisation. A good board is a critical friend but they’re also an advocate for the organisation in the community. I have no doubt that those who are leaving their term on the board and who have supported PBNI throughout will continue to do so, and I welcome the new board members, who will bring with them a fresh perspective and new innovation.”
Concluding with her ambitions for PBNI with her at the helm, Stewart hopes to continue to make progress on achieving a greater understanding of the work and impact of probation within the community, believing that a greater understanding will improve confidence in their service delivery and its many benefits.
She adds: “Covid-19 has shown us that through collaborative working, we can drive change across the justice sector for the betterment of communities. We are an ambitious organisation and undoubtedly, there is much work to do in the coming years but even in change, we will continue to retain our core mission to change lives for safer communities.”
As Chief Executive of the Probation Board, Amanda Stewart is the Accounting Officer and responsible for the day-to-day delivery of all probation services.
Previously, she worked for the Policing Board since its inception and has a wide range of experience across the Board’s responsibilities, including policing with the community, partnership and engagement, policy, human rights and police pensions and administration. Beginning her career as a Youth Worker with the Belfast Education and Library Board, Amanda holds a BSC (Hons) Degree in Community Youth Work from the University of Ulster and a master’s in education and contemporary society.