The current probation “market”
The Institute for Government recently published a fascinating report on how government is failing to ensure that the third of public services currently delivered by independent providers offer a good service.
The report looks at four key sectors, including probation.
This is the first of two posts exploring the IfG’s analysis of the probation “market”.
This first post looks at the analysis of the way that Probation Trusts currently manage the re-offending market.
A variable approach
The IfG report notes that very few probation trusts have been able to develop a co-ordinated approach to commissioning reducing reoffending services.
The West Mercia Care Farm approach is cited as a notable example.
The report identifies two key characteristics of local probation markets:
1. High barriers to entry and expansion
Although some specialist providers have been able to deliver services in their local area, it has proven difficult for a number of potentially high-capability voluntary and private sector organisations to enter and expand in the market. This means that those delivering commissioned services are not necessarily the best performing, which increases the risk of expensive, but low-quality provision.
2. Fragmentation between offender-facing services
Despite some examples of joined-up service provision, the majority of local contracts tend to be unco-ordinated with one another, which increases the potential for duplication, fragmentation and inefficiencies in delivery.
The report acknowledges that Probation Trusts have been successful in co-commissioning with other statutory partners with the positive result of generating additional resources for joined-up service provision. (This is particularly true of Integrated Offender Management and ESF Employment & Training contracts in particular).
The IfG also provides a clear description of a phenomenon that is very familiar to me. Probation Trusts frequently invest considerable time and energy in developing the capacity of small voluntary sector providers (often from BME communities or who meet a very specific need for offenders) over a period of years. The IfG note that the downside to this capacity-building approach is that the chosen provider tends to receive repeat contracts, irrespective of its performance, making it almost impossible for other providers to enter the market.
The fact that NOMS typically informs Probation Trusts about their budgets very late in the day coupled with the fact that historically Trusts have not been able to carry funds over into the next financial year has led to many trusts issuing short ad-hoc contracts which tend to undermine investment in service development.
The report also notes that few probation trusts have sufficient skills in commissioning, procurement and contract management and notes that successful outcomes often occur where the commissioning process has been undertaken by a partner (e.g. a Local Authority) with these skills. The last three years of budget cuts has made it increasingly difficult for trusts to address this lack of competence.
The IfG makes two very critical findings of the current commissioning of reducing reoffending services:
- Local commissioning is ineffective in most areas.
- Neither NOMS nor Probation Trusts has a systematic way of knowing whether commissioned services are effective.
The consequences of these two findings are the subject of my next post on this issue:
How effective will the outsourcing of probation be?