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John Tizard: Probation outsourcing – lessons must be learnt

Monday June 15th, 2020

The recent announcement by the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, that the outsourcing of the probation service is to end next year was welcome news to those who have long campaigned against Chris Grayling’s original decision to outsource. It has also been welcomed by staff, their trade unions and many of those committed to an effective and efficient criminal justice system.

John Tizard

John Tizard

The announcement was not unexpected – indeed, many will argue that it should have come earlier.
Under Chris Grayling’s widely derided shake-up in 2014, the probation sector was separated into a public sector organisation (the National Probation Service (NPS), managing high-risk criminals), and twenty-one business sector contractors responsible for the supervision of 150,000 low- to medium-risk offenders.

Following years of problems and complaints with the operation of this new structure, the Ministry of Justice subsequently announced that all offender management would be brought under the public sector NPS. The remaining services, such as rehabilitation and the provision of unpaid work, will now no longer be offered up for tender to the business sector, the Justice Secretary has said, marking the complete return of probation services to the public sector.

The NPS will thus take full responsibility for sentence management, interventions and programme delivery, leaving just some small role for the charity and community sector to complement and support but not compete with the NPS.
There have been several reports on the effectiveness of the outsourcing approach – most notably by the National Audit Office (NAO) and the former Chief Inspector of Probation, Glenys Stacey. I have no doubt these reports, which highlighted a catalogue of problems including service failure and confused accountability, contributed to the Secretary of State’s decision.

Inevitably, these issues have added to a wider questioning of the efficacy of the general outsourcing of public services. And now that this outsourcing is coming to an end, I do think it would be prudent for the Government to commission an independent enquiry to ensure that appropriate lessons are learnt. The outcome of such an enquiry could inform (and possibly influence) further thoughts about public service outsourcing and contribute to improving the management of existing contracts.

The terms of reference should focus on the probation service and wider issues on procurement, political decision making and public service ethos. The questions to be asked include:

• what was the evidence basis for the original decision to outsource?
• how much was the decision based on political choice ahead of managerial or evidence-led decision making?
• what lessons from previous government outsourcing programmes were considered when shaping the policy, the procurement and the contract management?
• what ministerial pressure or direction was applied to decision making?
• what roles did No 10, the Treasury or the Cabinet Office play in the decision making and subsequent procurement and contract management processes
• were there any discussions at ministerial level between potential bidders prior to the procurement and if so, were these recorded and what was the nature of these discussions?
• what was the role and cost of external advisors and consultants in the policy development, procurement and contract management stages of the project?
• how pivotal to the procurement process was securing low prices; and to what extent were the bidders and their bids subject to critical scrutiny of their ability to deliver to required standards of performance?
• what were the costs to the public purse of the project, including the costs arising from service performance?
• what was the service performance of the contracting and related arrangements; and what was the impact on the wider criminal justice system?
• what was the impact on staff of the outsourcing?
• how were the contracts let and monitored; and was the commercial and technical professional capacity sufficient to undertake these?
• what has been the financial and opportunity costs of terminating the contracts; and of establishing an in-house service?
• to what extent and how were stakeholders (including probation clients) involved in each stage of the processes, from deciding the policy to outsource through to deciding to bring the services back into the public sector?
• how does Government and the Government Commercial Services intend to learn lessons from the project?
• how can these lessons be harnessed so as to shape future government and wider public sector policy in respect of public service outsourcing?
• was the public service ethos undermined by this policy and if so how?

No doubt a comprehensive enquiry would and should ask questions beyond those listed above, but the answers to them and the lessons from them could add significant and relevant evidence to the growing debate about the efficacy of public service outsourcing; and if and when services are outsourced, how might decision making, and procurement and contract management processes be improved so as to improve the outcomes achieved.

Very many commentators, politicians from all parties, and experts share the view that the outsourcing of the probation service was not a success in any way. We need a robust and honest analysis (as well as hard evidence) to test this view, and then ensure that any lessons are properly learnt.

The legacy of this failure can be a positive one if the lessons are learnt and the errors not repeated.

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