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It’s possible to take payment by results too far

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Sir Suma Chakrabarti, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, wrote an interesting essay for @Reformthinktank’s new publication, the Next Ten Years, on targets and transparency. An edited version appeared in Tuesday’s Guardian.

He traces the development of the target culture under the last Labour administration and how it led to Public Service Agreements before going on to discuss the “new religion” of transparency.

Sir Suma summarises that the principle behind transparency is simple – put the data out there and let the public ask difficult questions, forcing public service managers to improve their performance. He is particularly interested in using data on the performance of different courts to put under-performers under the spotlight.

Interestingly, he announces that later this year the MoJ will link justice outcomes to the reported crime maps on the website.

He touches on a favourite theme of this Blog – how targets are susceptible to “gaming” by the organisations who are required to meet them. This is a particular concern of Payment by Results projects. This is how Sir Suma puts it:

“A transparency culture carries similar risks to a target culture if it becomes an end in itself. For example, transparency can still be gamed, albeit in a different way from targets. President Obama’s portal has seen agencies dumping old data on it, continuing to guard their more valuable data – leading to falling levels of use by the armchair auditors.”

These two themes of performance targets and transparency were neatly packaged for me at a recent Probation Trust staff conference I attended where they were presenting Excellence Awards to their high performing staff. One of the lifetime service awards went to a very experienced probation officer with over thirty years’ service who attributed her success at helping offenders to go straight to:

“Taking time, building relationships and listening to people”.

It was clear that the award was not just for long service as the Trust’s own database confirmed that the offenders she supervises are less likely to re-offend than they are predicted to do by their Offender Group Reconviction Scale (OGRS) scores.

So Probation Trusts are able to measure the effectiveness of individual offender managers in terms of their impact on re-offending – at least in terms of a (reasonably well evidenced) theoretical model.

Let’s hope Sir Suma doesn’t want to pursue the transparency and payment by results agendas to the point where he requires Probation Trusts to publish the effectiveness of individual probation officers on reducing re-offending – and then pay them according to their individual results.


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