Prospects for success not clear for two years at least
That was the overall conclusion of today’s National Audit Office report on the new probation system. The report, entitled simply “Transforming Rehabilitation” examines the progress of the new split probation service to date and seeks to assess what value it provides for public money.
NAO reports are important because they are authoritative and impartial — their focus is ensuring that public services are effective and provide good value for public money. This report is no exception and provides a detailed analysis over 56 pages, while making it clear that it is both too early to make a definitive assessment and that there are gaps in the data which make passing judgement difficult.
Structure of the report
The report explores the ongoing probation reforms and the extent to which changes are being managed in a way likely to promote value for money and is split into four parts:
- Part One provides an overview of probation reforms and assesses the procurement for the CRC contracts.
- Part Two focuses on the performance management of the 21 CRCs and the NPS.
- Part Three identifies important operational issues in CRCs and the NPS.
- Part Four examines progress by CRCs and the NPS in transforming probation services, and the main challenges they face in achieving the necessary transformation.
The report is crammed with detail and of such significance that I don’t intend to cover it all in this post. Instead, this post will simply summarise the headline findings. On Saturday (30 April 2016), I will publish a summary of the User Voice report on service users’ perspectives on TR and over the next four Mondays (starting on 9th May), I will cover each section of the report in greater detail.
I have organised the headline findings under three of the NAO’s four headings and deal with each in turn below.
- The performance of CRCs and the NPS remains unclear given limitations around data quality and availability.
- As at December 2015, NOMS has no data for three of 24 CRC service levels and assurance metrics, and insufficiently robust data in another two. Nationally, CRC performance is at or above target levels in seven of the remaining 19 measures, including positive completion of court orders, seen by the Ministry as a leading indicator for future reoffending.
- However, performance varies significantly across CRCs and the contracts require that CRCs achieve all targets by February 2017.
- The NPS has similar issues including currently no data for five of 25 NPS service levels and insufficiently robust data in another two. Performance is at or above targets in seven of the remaining 18 measures. In the important measure of positive completion of court orders, NPS performance is lower than the equivalent performance by CRCs (70% versus 80% in December 2015).
- The reforms have established new organisations with different incentives, creating unsurprising frictions between CRC and NPS staff at working level, which will take time to work through. Close cooperation is essential to handle the transfer of offenders between CRCs and the NPS when their risks change or when they breach the terms of their probation.
- Many junior staff the NAO interviewed in CRCs considered their NPS contacts were often unduly critical and dismissive, while many junior staff in the NPS thought that their CRC contacts were often not providing them with necessary information and had become too focused on their commercial interests as opposed to the best interests of offenders. The NAO concludes “at this early stage the organisations have more to do to ensure that they work together more effectively to improve case management.”
- Concerns over probation workloads are not new, although staff in both the CRCs and the NPS considered that high workloads have reduced the supervision and training that they receive and the service they provide.
- The various ICT systems used in probation casework create severe inefficiencies. New tools used by the NPS for assessing and allocating offenders are cumbersome and require repeated data re-entry. All CRCs planned to replace existing ICT systems once they could develop new case management and assessment systems, but NOMS was delayed in developing and implementing the interface (the Gateway) required for CRCs to share data on offenders.
Challenges and risks
The NAO identifies five key risks which the TR reforms need to overcome if they are to be successful:
- CRC business volumes are much lower than the Ministry modelled during the procurement, which, if translated into reduced income, would affect the ability of CRCs to transform their businesses. The volume reductions vary greatly, from 6% to 36%.
- CRCs are paid primarily for completing specified activities with offenders rather than for reducing reoffending, which also risks hindering innovative practice.
- The NPS has higher than predicted caseloads and faces a difficult further period of change if it is to play a fully effective role in the new Transforming Rehabilitation model.
- Arrangements to resettle offenders ‘Through the Gate’ are still in their early stages.
- The Ministry has more work to do to sustain the supply chain of mainly voluntary sector bodies now working to CRCs and the NPS.
The NAO’s conclusion summarises the scale of the challenge ahead:
Ultimately, the success of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms will depend on the extent to which they create the conditions and incentives to reduce reoffending. While NOMS’ oversight of CRCs is robust, significantly lower levels of business than the Ministry projected will affect some CRCs’ ability to deliver the level of innovation they proposed in their bids. Furthermore, the NPS is not yet operating as a truly national, sustainable service. Achieving value for money from the new probation system will require resolving these fundamental issues, and ensuring the right incentives for all participants in the system.
The NAO has published an extremely well constructed infographic which summarises their main findings and which is reproduced below.