Right Grayling, wrong crime

The UK parliament’s Justice Select Committee has finally confirmed what we predicted in our blogs and advised the Committee as early as 2013. The so-called ‘rehabilitation revolution’, or contracting out of probation services, by the then Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, has been a complete failure. There has been a reduction in quality of service, “disappointing” impact on re-offending, chronic morale amongst staff, and no involvement of third sector specialists. The Committee’s findings echo the Chief Inspector of Probation who revealed last December that up to 40% of offenders are now supervised by telephone, with calls every six weeks, rather than in person. However, the reasons for this failure are not as people assume, and this widespread misunderstanding will only harm future public services further.

Opponents have been quick to jump on this as further evidence of the failure of evil, big private sector providers and of privatisation in general. They are wrong. It is not the use of contracting that is to blame, but the way that the contracting was conceived and managed.

Giving evidence to the Committee in July 2013, I said: “………as the contracts are currently designed, this is not a rehabilitation revolution. You must be clear about that. This is about the outsourcing of probation services for the delivery of court orders at the cheapest possible price………. the Ministry has made it clear that it is looking for a cost saving of around 30% through this procurement.” (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmjust/c94-i/c9401.htm)

Grayling was quick to promote his outsourcing of probation as provision of a “through the gate service designed to help prisoners resettle in their communities”. He said this would be “payment by results”, with the results being fewer instances of recidivism.

Indeed, there were few people working in and around probation before this ‘revolution’ who did not admit to waste and inefficiency in the system. As far as results go, nearly 45% of all adults are reconvicted within one year of release from prison.

Unfortunately, Grayling’s promotion of the new approach was misguided at best.

Outsourcing can be a way to introduce a stronger link between spend and delivery – a commercial rigour – to increase performance within a budgetary envelope. But when you compete on price, this actually shatters any such link. It goes against the logic of why you outsourced in the first place. It just comes down to who bids cheapest.

As I explained to the Committee in 2013: “The Ministry has made it clear that it is looking for a cost saving of around 30% through this procurement. If we take, for example, a typical probation area that is being outsourced in this way, they currently spend about £30 million on their services as defined by the court orders. The Ministry is looking for somebody to bid at around £20 million for delivery of those services – including the addition of the under-12-month supervision orders – still within the £20 million window. The organisation that is successful in securing the contract will be the one that bids cheapest. Whether they are then able to continue to deliver the service is a moot point.”

There is, it is true, an element of ‘payment by results’ in these contracts. Some of the money paid to the contractors is linked to reoffending numbers. But this only represents 20% of their potential contract value. 80% of their funding is paid as a ‘fee for service’ on a monthly basis.

The successful contractors had to bid cheaper than anyone else. Then pare back the service as close to the bone as possible (e.g. switching from face-to-face contact to telephone calls) in order to cover their basic running costs and (hopefully, they thought) derive a bit of profit, from this very cheap monthly service fee. This fee that had been arrived at with no consideration at all for what should have been the fundamental questions underpinning the commissioning process:

  • What does good probation look like?
  • What does this cost, when it is run efficiently and focused on performance?
  • How do we attach that cost to service inputs and outcomes?

In my previous blog I described how I am assisting the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs in Kabul to buy employment outcomes in precisely this way. We have built a shadow ‘costed operating model’. This helps us to fix the pricing and reinforce the link between cost and delivery, using the payments to drive performance not shackle it.

This is, of course, not the first time Grayling has aggressively applied price competition and destroyed services as a result. In the world of employment services, he pushed through a similar model. As a result, whereas over £1 billion a year was spent on outsourced assistance to long-term unemployed and other at-risk groups a decade ago. Now, post Grayling’s Work Programme, annual spend is only around £150 million. There simply is no support in place for hundreds of thousands of workless people. Because contractors were thrown into a competitive battle, where cost and delivery were disconnected, and they fought to reach the bottom.

Maybe we should not blame Grayling alone. It seems a widely held belief that outsourcing equals privatisation, which simply equals buying the cheapest thing possible. This is certainly the model that procurement professionals are most familiar with, and procurement all started with the purchase of products (like desks) where value-for-money is a much easier equation. Getting stuck in this view is a huge missed opportunity, and means the maintenance of inefficient services that fail people that need them.

The design of the commissioning process for public services has the power to transform their efficiency and their impact. But services like these are not products. You cannot buy a service in the same way you buy paperclips.

5 Responses to “Right Grayling, wrong crime”
  1. I agree – up to a point and followed Richard Johnson’s sound arguments from 2013.

    Obviously the MOJ consultants had no idea what good probation was because they had no experience of it at close hand over an extended period and are ignorant of the way humanity works. Traditionally probation practitioners made some discoveries when undertaking pre-entry, university degree level academic & practical social work training which links experience with academic research and understandings and tends to be complex and is at best, part of a lifelong project of discovery.

    You wrote about contract design – they did not even get that right.

    However, probation works best when it is collaborative between professionals utilising apposite resources for individual clients. It also benefits from continuity of relationship which was at one time possible – in some cases from first court appearance to termination of court order.

    Hence, the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) project was doomed once the split was decided and implemented in 2014.

    The problem is now how to design a repair and I have no clear idea – do you, please?

    Coincidentally in response to a critical blog about a possibly biased journalist today, I have already written more and referencing the history of probation in England and Wales, here: –


    The way forward needs to be collaborative – that is how human advances happen – I think that maybe Gestalt Theory?

    In social work/probation terms it is about helping clients understand their situation and identify how they want to change – progress is only achievable if individuals are ready to try something other than crime. Supervision works by using personal professional relationships to be supportive yet challenging, in collaboration, with supervisees who are subjects of various criminal court orders by enabling & monitoring progress on behalf of the state.

    Occasionally more may be necessary from probation supervisors (nowadays many are not probation officers as no training is statutorily required by employees of CRCs [Community Rehabilitation Companies]). The probation supervisor may need to report back to the court (or minister in parole/prison release on licence cases) if further public harm seems imminent. Then the final state authority has the duty to determine on behalf of us all what other further action should be taken and whether incarceration or compulsory psychiatric treatment (for example) is needed.

    Andrew S Hatton
    4th July 2018

    • Richard Johnson says:


      Thank you as ever for you experienced and insightful response.

      I think you are quite right: the key to this is the relationship/interaction between the client and the case manager. It is surely the key in this and so many comparable services.

      The challenge is how you create the conditions that facilitate this. How do you ensure you have a listening, flexible service, with a case manager who has the capability and the autonomy to respond.

      Perversely, I have observed that as some services mature, and professionalise, this vital autonomy and responsiveness are eroded. Process starts to take over – because the ‘profession’ has the answers, which the frontline member of staff must just apply. I suppose it is partly to do with scale, and the need to assure quality and safety (for clients and staff).

      Using outcome-based contracting has the potential, at least in some circumstances, to enable this. Sure, there are many ifs and buts. And it must be delivered within a service specification or framework, wrapped around with strong quality standards. But you MUST shift the focus from rigid inputs to the desired outcome or impact.


      • Thank you Richard, as I have written elsewhere today: –

        I am flattered and frustrated in about equal measure.

        Flattered because it is gratifying to get confirmation that my explanations make at least some sense.

        Frustrated because I was trying to say this stuff about what is important about probation since Mr Grayling first announced them – in fact even before that. I realised in 1991 that the then Criminal Justice Act was going to change probation for ever, but I could not get anyone to see it. The substance was the probation order -(now almost abolished) became a sentence of the court (a punishment) rather than a (sort of) Conditional Discharge with very special conditions that required the probationer if s/he agreed to cooperate with meeting a probation officer over an agreed period of time, sometimes with other conditions thrown in, then at the end – the conviction – in many cases would be expunged from the probationer’s record.

        But I guess this is not the place for such details and maybe you have had more than enough already.

  2. Richard Johnson says:

    Andrew, I am afraid our system prefers (for a host of reasons) retribution over reduced recidivism. Unfortunately, it is a very short-term (and expensive) preference!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Transforming Rehabilitation is another classic example. Bidders were asked, as a starting point, to develop an offer that would: 1) help more offenders than ever before and 2) deliver better results than the existing service. They were asked to do this with a maximum budget equivalent to around 70 per cent of the existing services. And then they were pitched into a price competition. Richard Johnson writes about this in greater detail here. […]

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