The Institute for Government has just (18 August, 2022) published a report on the reunification of the probation service which took place on 27 June last year. The report’s authors, Raj Johal and Nick Davies, conclude that the fact that a transition of such scale was delivered as planned with virtually no disruption is impressive, even without the added complications of a tight timetable and difficulties created by Covid-19.
The report looks at the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) preparations for the reunification of services and their transition back into the department, highlighting successes, challenges, and areas of focus for the longer-term improvement of probation services.
In 2019, the government announced it was bringing the management of medium- and low-risk offenders in England and Wales back in house. The decision followed extensive criticism of the decision to outsource these services in 2015 and is the fourth major restructuring of probation services in 20 years, two of which have taken place in the last eight years alone.
The scale of the task
The ambition was for the return of all services (with the exception of the Commissioned Rehabilitative Services which were still outsourced) to MoJ in June 2021 – 12 months from the announcement. With 113,000 cases and over 7,000 staff from 54 separate organisations needing to be transferred, alongside the harmonisation of different operating models, cultures and processes, the timetable was ambitious. The pressure was increased by the impact of Covid-19 on already-stretched services, and the complexity of delivering with a largely remote workforce. So tight was the timetable, the IfG reveals that an MoJ non-executive director privately gave the programme a 3% chance of success.
Despite concerns about the pace of change and the approach to procurement, the reunification of probation services took place successfully on 26 June 2021, as planned. On Day 1:
- Over 7,000 staff transferred to MoJ, joining 3,500 probation officers already in the public sector, creating a workforce of more than 10,500 people in the new Probation Service.
- All transferred staff were provided with devices and had data and email migrated.
- All but 30 staff had access to a laptop; and only 10 were not paid at the end of the first month. Emergency payments were promptly arranged for all 10 individuals.
- Almost 200 buildings were transferred.
- All 110 Commissioned Rehabilitative Services contracts for Day 1 services were in place.
- Essential services were still running.
The probation inspectorate’s assessment of the changes included a survey of 1,500 probation staff and found that the programme had, in the main, been well managed, noting there were no major disruptions to service provision; and the majority of the staff and managers they spoke to supported the direction of travel.
Inevitably, the report found some areas where things could have gone better. This included former CRC staff not being given enough time for a proper induction as they moved organisations, again due to the pace of change; and feeling less satisfied with the implementation of the changes than former NPS employees. Over half of probation staff were also dissatisfied with high caseloads and the guidance on how to manage work at the point of unification.
The report assesses the approach that government took to major decisions, and their impact on the programme finding:
- The programme team should be commended for delivering against a difficult timetable – even if this was self-imposed. However, on balance, a short extension of up to six months would have struck a better balance between MoJ’s competing priorities.
- The programme benefited from experienced senior leaders who avoided mistakes from previous reforms. In particular, they had a strong commitment to open dialogue and engagement, which played a critical role in ensuring the changes were as smooth as possible for staff and providers alike.
- Innovations by independent providers, such as case management, were lost in the transition due to the tight timetable and relatively limited autonomy in the civil service.
- MoJ’s approach to procurement was complex and made it difficult for smaller providers to qualify. More focus from the start on ensuring proportionality would have delivered a more diverse, engaged market of providers for Day 1 services.
- MoJ’s core message to staff that the change was a merger not a takeover. This was the right approach but led to some difficulties.
With the probation reform programme due to be formally wound by the end of 2022, the report calls on government to focus on operational performance, recruitment, and cultural integration.
As regular readers will know, as of 18 August this year, inspectors had assessed nine probation delivery units since reunification and had rated six of these as “inadequate” and three as “requiring improvement”.
Recruitment is also a serious problem with a shortfall of 1,692 FTE probation officers (27%) at the end of June this year.
MoJ’s tagline for the unification of probation was that it was a ‘merger, not a takeover’. But mergers require cultural and contractual cohesion. MoJ is still in the process of trying to harmonise the terms and conditions for some 700 staff who worked for parent companies or subcontractors. This will be an important step towards proper workforce integration, without which the report’s authors say that true transformation and effective delivery of probation services will be difficult to realise.