Government on probation

30 Sep 13

The Ministry of Justice’s approach to outsourcing probation contracts will be a test of the government’s commitment to voluntary, social, mutual and co-operative organisations. Many fear the real agenda is to transfer services to large business providers

The government is undertaking a major shake-up of the probation and rehabilitation services and has decided to outsource the majority of these services to the business and social sectors on payment-by-results contracts.

This is a very ambitious programme of outsourcing, even for national government. It is being conducted with some haste – presumably to ensure that contracts are let prior to a May 2015 General Election. It is also being undertaken when two of more of the obvious potential contractors are under investigation by the police and the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for the outsourcing. And, finally, it is taking place at a time when wider concerns are being raised about markets and competition, and the outsourcing of critical public services.

The model being adopted is itself very interesting in as much as the most serious and ‘at risk’ cases will remain the responsibility of the newly created ‘national public probation service’. It follows that there is thus the potential for gaming by either the public probation service and/or the new providers.

The business model being adopted is similar to (but, we are told, different from) that adopted in the Work Programme, which has hardly proven to be a great success, especially for many unemployed people or for the social sector generally. In far too many cases, it is reported that the voluntary and social sector providers have found themselves bearing unbearable risks as sub-contractors to the principally business sector prime contractors.

The government has stated that it wants to see innovation and new players in the probation and rehabilitation services. It has encouraged staff and managers from probation trusts to form mutuals and co-operatives. Equally, it has encouraged existing voluntary and social sector organisations to bid. It has also sought to ensure that there will not be the same commercial and financial problems that many in the sector have experienced as providers in the Work Programme.

It is to be hoped that if the outsourcing continues (and there are very good reasons to push the pause or even the stop buttons) that there will be genuine opportunities for social, voluntary and mutual/co-operative bidders. And also for them to be prime contractors as well, and not just supply chain ‘partners’ or ‘providers’ to large corporate prime contractors.

For the continuity of the service in the short and long term those staff in the probation and rehabilitation services involved in developing mutuals and bidding should be able to engage actively with their colleagues across the wider service. Artificial separation makes little sense and could be damaging in the short and longer terms.

My worry is that getting the above outcomes will require some pretty innovative and sophisticated procurement that:

• is driven by the spirit and requirements of the Public Services (Social Value) Act with clear social impact targets for the new services
• does not require bidders to have massive bank balances or assets to underpin their bids
• sets the size of contracts appropriately
• enables new entities such as staff mutuals and co-operatives, and voluntary and social sector organisations, to receive support to build their capacity to bid in ways that avoid ‘state aid’ challenges
• requires prime contractors contractually to treat their supply chain and partner providers fairly (and well beyond the ‘Merlin Standards’) and to manage risk in a manner that does not seek to transfer it to small organisations that cannot bear it – with both incentives and penalties that would bite
• gives mutuals and co-operatives, and voluntary and social sector providers, comfort on pension liabilities
• encourages innovation and offender responsive services and which is not solely based on price and/or driving costs out of the system
• positively responds to new models for delivery bodies such as co-operatives that have community, staff and user involvement and ownership
• enables providers to act outside the constraints of the existing orthodoxy and provides sufficient finance to enable creative approaches
• creates the right relations between the public probation service and new providers so as to prevent gaming and to ensure effective collaboration that is in the interests of society and offenders
• requires providers to play a collaborative role in the localities and with others from the public, social, community and business sectors – with the premise that probation and rehabilitation should be part of a wider holistic place- based approach to building community well-being
• ensures accountability of all providers to local communities, including victims; and requires them to participate in local authority public scrutiny
• makes all providers from all sectors act transparently with independently audited accounts and performance data; the publication of such data including profits in a timely fashion; and required to act in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act

Has the government got that level of sophistication or even the will to seek these outcomes?

Yesterday I chaired a ResPublica fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference on innovation and social value in public services. I could have argued for the retention of the probation service in the public sector, but on the basis that the government will press ahead with the procurement I asked how many of the conditions described above the Ministry of Justice intends to adopt.

The MoJ’s approach to this procurement will be a test of the government’s intent and genuine commitment to voluntary, social, mutual and co-operative organisations delivering public services in partnership with the public sector. It will demonstrate whether, in spite of warm words and rhetoric, the real agenda is to transfer these and other public services to large business providers with as little regulation and protection for the social sector as it can get away with.

On the future of the probation service, the government itself is on probation.

  • John Tizard
    John Tizard is an independent strategic adviser and commentator on public policy and public services. He works with a range of public, private, third, union and academic organisations. He now holds several non-executive, trustee and chair roles in the VCS and arts sectors. He was a senior executive both at Capita and Scope, and is a former joint council leader

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