Sublime and ridiculous

I’m on the train home from London after another jam-packed day yesterday… but, for present purposes, the best place to start is at the end.

I caught up with Allan and the crew for dinner last night in Chelsea. They had spent the day filming, first with Liz Dixon and Nick Paul of London Probation Trust, and then with Mark Johnson of User Voice. It was a long day for everyone involved, but a brilliant day for the project. These interviews (and today’s with folks from Unlock) are critical to the third part of the film — the part that concerns me most — which is where we aim to open up debates about what we need to do differently in probation (and criminal justice more generally) if we are to better support desistance. Having seen my first sight of the footage last night — not just from yesterday’s filming but from the earlier shoots — I am more convinced than ever about the importance and value of this project. Both the raw content and the visual impact of the footage is stunning; in fact, I’d go so far as to say it is beautiful in several senses of the word (not a word often associated with Mr Weaver, but there you go…). Allan and the crew are doing a brilliant job.

Of course, we’re still facing a huge editing dilemma, but might be edging towards a solution; to work as a 50 minute film, the film needs to have a clear narrative and its characters need sufficient presence — which means time on screen. It’s going to be classic struggle over clarity versus subtlety. We’re bound to lose some of the latter, but the 14 or 15 hours of footage that we have filmed so far are so rich that we need to find other ways to use them. The emerging solution may be a set of DVD extras where people can dip into longer versions of particular interviews on particular issues. That way, we get not just the film but a set of really rich learning resources.

So much for the sublime, what about the ridiculous? Well, as the team were away filming I managed three presentations in 5 hours — one to people in NOMS involved in commissioning, one to CLINKS, and one to London Probation Trust. The first two tried to think through some of the possible implications of desistance research for commissioning. These were interesting discussions, and too complex for (half) a hasty blog post, but one message came out clearly, for me at least: If we take a desistance-based perspective seriously it means we have to recognise that neither NOMS nor any provider of services can command, control or compel reductions in reoffending, for the simple reasons that (a) desistance belongs to the people involved and (b) integration of ex-offenders belongs to communities (though the state, civil society and public services have duties here too). In other words, neither the commissioners not the deliverers of services in fact ‘own’ desistance and social integration; these things are not the outcomes of their work — they are human and social processes that depend on people and communities finding ways to resolve their conflicts, tackle their issues, realise their potential, accept and support their fellow citizens.

High quality services can play a big part in helping people and communities achieve these things, but they don’t make them happen in any straightforward way, and its ridiculous to imagine that they do. I suggested there are two main implications for commissioning: (1) commissioners should focus as much on commissioning quality as on outcomes (since quality is deliverable and can and should be promised) (2) users need to be much more involved in helping to define quality and in shaping commissioning decisions (since it is their change process that quality services exist to support).

If anyone is interested, I’ll try posting the powerpoint presentation on this stuff later.

4 thoughts on “Sublime and ridiculous”

  1. The presentation is available in the useful resources page; it might not make much sense without the accompanying explanation, but you’ll get the gist of it from the later slides, I hope.


  2. Fergus, I was at the second of the three events and found it extremely interesting. The strength of it was to build a series of easily-understood ideas into a coherent whole, the implications of which for commissioning are clear. The progression from one idea to the other seemed logical and effortless, and though it builds, I’m sure, on years of work, the way you present them is lucid and compelling.

    What’s not effortless is thinking about how it has to fit around the political reality, which we touched on in questions at the end. It’s challenging stuff – I can understand what you said about someone from NOMS saying they felt they had been punched in the stomach – but I think if the film manages to put across the points in the same way, it’ll be well worth the time.


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