A group of backbench Conservative MPs this week set out an alternative Queen’s Speech with 40 bills that they would like to see brought forward by the Coalition Government. These included some usual suspects, from the re-introduction of National Service for young people and tougher sentences for offenders, to further curbs on immigration and even the introduction of ‘Margaret Thatcher Day’. However predictable, what is apparent is how removed these proposals are from the conversations and concerns found at the frontline of public services.
The typical approach to policymaking by the political class is to put forward a big idea that involves significant structural changes and a set of ‘incentives’ that are designed to drive implementation. Take Chris Grayling’s Rehabilitation Revolution. Grayling has called for “reformed offenders to be on hand to mentor younger offenders through the difficult days and months following their release from prison”. His big idea is structured around two main ‘innovations’:
- Offenders need to be supported ‘through the prison gate’, providing consistency between custody and community;
- Those released from short-sentences, who currently do not get support, need rehabilitation if we are to bring prolific reoffending under control.
Under the “transforming rehabilitation plans”, the current probation service will be broken up. Approximately 20% will be kept ‘in-house’ as a new national public probation service, which will be responsible for risk management in the new system and the direct management of those individuals who pose the greatest risk to the public. The remaining 80% of the service will be outsourced to private sector prime contractors across 21 ‘contract package areas’ (CPAs), who will be offered significant financial incentives to reduce re-offending rates.
The policy has been designed to bring about a revolution in rehabilitation by significantly reducing re-offending rates, improving efficiency (including a reduction in costs by approximately 20-30%) and unlocking innovation (by bringing new private sector players into the sector).
The frontline blogosphere has significant reservations about these reforms, for example Jim Brown (a regular contributor here) has long argued that these reforms are rushed and poorly thought through. He has questioned whether Grayling and his civil servants in the Ministry of Justice understand what they are actually doing:
“I’m tempted to ask if he really understands what he is embarking upon here? But actually I’m fairly sure he doesn’t. It has all the hallmarks of possibly appearing to be a good idea on paper, drawn up by bright, but utterly green civil servants with little knowledge of offenders and the realities of the prison and probation environment.”
Prisoner Ben, who describes himself as “no great friend of the Probation Service”, has also criticised the decision to exclude Probation Trusts from bidding for any of the 21 contracts:
“In their ideological frenzy, the Government has blown its cover. If it had the slightest interest in reducing reoffending and protecting the public, it would allow all qualified parties to bid for future contracts. But, and this is the tipping point for me, the Government is barring Probation Trusts from even bidding for the work. The only people with any expertise in this work are being specifically forbidden from being involved in it.”
There is of course consensus from the frontline that re-offending rates need to be reduced, and some aspects of Grayling’s proposals enjoy support. Jim Brown for instance has welcomed the idea of offering support to prisoners serving less than twelve months:
“Now offering support for the short-term prisoner has long been felt ‘a good idea’, but successive government’s have not been willing to fund the Probation Service to undertake this work.”
He also shares Grayling’s concerns that too much time is spent on paperwork and process:
“I also heard him (Graying) have the temerity to moan that only 25% of a probation officer’s time was spent productively on face-to-face client contact. Well that’s a 4 year-old statistic and it was never our fault, but his bloody department and the effect of imposing OASys on us.”
However, there are legitimate concerns about the proposals. Jim Brown has queried how the split between the new national public probation service and the outsourced contracts will actually work in practice:
“So the latest idea in the development of what will undoubtedly become a super omnishambles is to place a responsibility upon the contractor to press a ‘trigger’ at the first signs of trouble and get shot of the case to the public service ’toot sweet’ and certainly before they’ve had chance to swing the proverbial axe and kill anyone.”
Further, Buying QP has questioned whether these proposals will actually deliver a significant reduction in re-offending rates:
“However, despite the rhetoric about a “rehabilitation revolution” this is the outsourcing of probation, pure and simple. It has the potential to deliver more efficient and effective probation services but is unlikely to have a significant impact on recidivism rates.”
But what is most striking about the debate from the frontline is the fundamentally different conception of the problem to be solved. While Grayling focuses on structures and incentives, the frontline’s response is more often focused on:
- Improving the quality of relationships between probation staff and ex-offenders, which is too often constrained by bureaucracy, process and management systems.
- Recognising the complexity of people’s lives and the need for a pragmatic approach in response, and that simple, one-size fits all solutions are not the answer.
- Encouraging local approaches and more joined up working between different government agencies, charities and business.
To take another example, the Work Programme is another one-size fits all “big idea” to tacking long-term worklessness, which has involved restructuring the welfare to work sector. Despite what the Government claims, the financial incentives offered to the private sector through the Work Programme, which were designed to concentrate efforts on those furthest away from the labour market, are not working (even the sector trade body ERSA is now claiming that the costs of supporting disabled jobseekers into work cannot be met by the programme because their needs are too great).
This disconnect between the political class and the frontline – which leads to fundamentally different solutions – is echoed in other areas of public services, from health to education, social care to social work. Ayrshire Health and abetternhs are two such sites that regularly makes the case for co-producing health policy with users and frontline practitioners.
Some commentators might argue that frontline practitioners are too close to the services they provide to develop credible alternative solutions, but it’s more likely to be the opposite: that the lack of frontline input into policymaking makes for poor policy and in particular poor implementation. The Government doesn’t make changes to sectors such as banking or employment legislation without reference to (indeed, its seems the agreement of) the banking sector or private sector employers, but it’s noticeable that the same approach isn’t applied in public service reform. Indeed, more often, frontline opposition is taken as a sign that ‘reform’ is necessary and politicians are getting it right.
The political class often lectures public service workers that they need to wake up to the ‘new reality’ of austerity. Perhaps the political class needs to wake up to the notion that, in an era of austerity, large-scale structural reform and financial incentives are costly, often unpopular, distracting and too often don’t achieve the objectives desired of them. Instead, improving the quality of relationships between practitioners and services users, supporting local approaches, and a healthy dose of pragmatism are far more likely to reduce costs and improve services. It seems that some people such as Jon Cruddas who is heading up the Labour Party policy review are waking up to this basic truth; will the political class as a whole?