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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

GPS tagging “catastrophic waste of money”

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Public Accounts Committee extremely critical of Ministry of Justice procurement of "next generation" electronic tagging.

Fundamentally flawed procurement

A simple idea made overly ambitious, overly complicated and poorly delivered
That’s the headline judgement of the Public Accounts Committee  in yesterday’s (24 January 2018) report on the MoJ’s new generation (GPS) electronic monitoring scheme. The report says the Ministry of Justice pushed on with an overly complicated project without clear evidence it was needed. Here’s the links:

Context

Electronic monitoring allows the police, courts or probation services to monitor an offender’s location and their compliance with home curfews. In 2011, the Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) launched a programme to develop a new world-leading ankle tag, employing GPS technology to be used by all tagged offenders. The programme was intended to reduce the cost of tagging and provide wider operational benefits and more sentencing options for courts. The new tags were originally due to be rolled out from November 2013. Owing to a series of delays, the new tags are now expected to be rolled out from early 2019, more than five years late. The Ministry has so far spent over £60 million on the programme, including £7.7 million (plus VAT) of losses which cannot be recovered, yet it still relies on the same form of tagging technology that was commercially available when the programme first started. To me, the major criticism of the MoJ is the fact that an initiative to save public funds has ended up doing the opposite. The programme was originally expected to reduce the cost of tagging by between £9 million and £30 million a year. These savings relied in part on the Ministry’s estimate that between 160,000–220,000 offenders would be subject to tagging orders during 2016–17. But the MoJ dramatically over-estimated this number: in 2016–17, less than 65,000 offenders were given tagging orders, equating to around 12,000 individuals wearing tags at any one time. The Ministry told PAC that the over-estimate was in part due to overbilling by previous suppliers, meaning that the baselines for its estimates were inaccurate. It also said us that it had expected legislation to be introduced that would allow tagging to be used as a standalone sentence, which did not materialise. It now expects the number of offenders wearing tags at any one time to remain at around 12,000 each year

Summary

The Public Accounts Committee has produced a very short, not to say hard-hitting summary of its findings:
Offender-monitoring tags can be a cost-effective alternative to custodial sentences, but the Ministry of Justice’s (the Ministry) delivery of the new generation electronic monitoring programme so far has been fundamentally flawed. The simple idea of replacing the contracts for electronic tags was made overly ambitious, overly complicated and has been poorly delivered. The programme has so far been a catastrophic waste of public money which has failed to deliver the intended benefits. The Ministry pressed ahead with the programme without clear evidence that it was to be operated or that it was deliverable. Its selection of a high-risk approach to procure the new electronic tags, and its poor management of both the programme and potential suppliers, exacerbated these problems. The MoJ has ultimately wasted a huge amount of time and taxpayers’ money to end up with an approach which uses the same types of tags and supplier it had when the programme started. Many of the lessons the Ministry claims to have learned are simply common sense and should not have resulted in such a shambolic delivery of an important programme. We welcome the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service’s realism and candour, but this situation should not have been allowed to happen in the first place. We do not expect to see similar failings in any of the other 16 major projects currently being undertaken by the MoJ.

Conclusion

Those familiar with the world of probation and the Transforming Rehabilitation privatisation programme will, regrettably, be unsurprised by another procurement horror story. The TR procurement process has already featured in a range of academic analyses as a text book case of government outsourcing gone wrong – an overly complex, frequently modified process which promised massive cost savings but actually proved to be a race to the bottom on price with those being awarded the contracts facing up to the “winner’s curse” – the inability to deliver the promised activities with the finances available. In the USA, many states are already in the process of abandoning electronic tagging in favour of smartphone monitoring which has the double advantage of being much cheaper while not stigmatising the offender by having to go about their daily life with an outsized ankle tag publicly labeling them a criminal.

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2 Responses

  1. “The Ministry told PAC that the over-estimate was in part due to overbilling by previous suppliers, meaning that the baselines for its estimates were inaccurate.” No way this can wholly account for the ridiculous baseline. And what’s more the overbilling was discovered AGES ago (2013) so should have given plenty of time to recognise that data was rubbish and redraw the baseline. Whole thing a huge mess with some terrible senior decision making. Did Committee ask to speak to Grayling? We have to start calling ministers (as well as officials) back so that they can account for failures on their watch.

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Tom. If we had got big expansion of tagging, we would probably have seen even more recalls and tagging used alongside other disposals rather than instead of.
      Best Wishes
      Russell

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