Saturday, 26 January 2013

There's risk - and there's Risk

I was bemused the other day to see that Russell Webster has posted a piece about risk on his blog in relation to the governments' plans for privatising the probation service. Of course Russell perfectly represents the veritable cottage industry that has sprung up in recent time in order to assist the private sector pick over the bones of the public sector. 

Written by Richard Butler and Holger Westphely of Aylesbury Partnerships, it discusses the plethora of risks involved for organisations tempted to have a piece of the action when core probation work is put out to contract on a Payment by Result basis:-

"There are 3 key reasons why an organisation needs better understanding of risk.
The most obvious is that if your business is becoming more risky then you need to be able to determine whether you are likely to be toppled over.
Secondly as contracts become more risky there is a greater need to share that risk and you'll need to know what you are passing on and who is best placed to take it on. 
Finally if you take on additional risk in a contract you'll need to make sure that the revenue is commensurate with the risk."

Although it might sound a bit scary to all us public sector types, these money guys remain bullish that it can all be sorted out with appropriate expertise, provided at a fee of course:-

'Risk' can sound like a very dry subject but all it's about is getting a better sense of the underlying dynamics at play in a contract and being able to communicate them, which can only improve your ability to deliver and compete."

So there's clearly a risk you might not make any money. But this is only one aspect of risk that prospective private contractors might lose sleep over. What about the inevitable instances when it all goes Pete Tong, belly up and pear-shaped? When that low-risk offender murders his partner with an axe or rampages through the High Street with a Kalashnikov? 

Yes I know the OASys gives no hint of any of this and his pre-cons only show a string of shop thefts - oh and a fine for not having a TV licence. The contact log is bang up-to-date (phew), he's been seen regularly (phew) and never mentioned anything about having an axe or gun (phew). But that won't stop the headlines in the Daily Mail and The Sun screaming what will be on the lips of the nation:- 

"Well you should have bloody-well known - you're supervising him aren't you?!" 

Oh, and don't forget the local MP and the telephone call from the Minister's office. They've got their careers to think of, any reputational damage and basically make sure that you carry the can. We know all about this of course in the probation service because successive government's have fostered the utterly delusional belief that risk management is a science. The world beating OASys is held up naively as a scientific method of measuring risk. It works perfectly of course, until something goes wrong. Then you just say it was filled in wrong - simples

Now Chris Grayling and those clever people down there at the Ministry know all this and they think they have a cunning plan. In order to 'protect the public' the wheeze is that they intend to make the probation service responsible for all risk management, even those cases handed to the private sector. 

Exactly how is that going to work then Mr Grayling? 

All this is succinctly dealt with in a recent blog post by a new boy on the block, 'the aged member speaks' and I'm grateful to a reader for pointing me in the appropriate direction:-  

This is an almost unbelievable proposition. The public sector retains the ultimate risk without having direct control. How is that supposed to work? Apparently, he is entertaining the notion that public sector staff will meet their private sector counterparts to review cases and if necessary move them back to the public sector if risk becomes more acute. The risks of shuffling cases from one sector to the other simply add to the risks of miscommunication and confusion between the two sectors and with other agencies. This is going to lead to tragedy somewhere.

Maybe the Secretary of State thinks that it’s only a minority of cases currently destined for the private sector where there might be an element of serious risk needing to be monitored and controlled. There are large numbers of cases in the system currently designated as “medium risk” ( that is, with the potential to commit serious harm but currently unlikely to do unless circumstances change). Falling into this category are a great number of perpetrators of domestic violence who constitute a large proportion of the current caseload supervised in the community – about 15%. Then there are the cases where risks to children or vulnerable adults are involved. Many of these don’t constitute an active, immediate risk but fall into the medium risk band. 

In the coming weeks we're going to hear a lot more about risk. I notice that Harry Fletcher of NAPO has written on the subject today in a piece for Criminal Law and Justice. Maybe readers will have better luck than me in gaining access to it though as the site resolutely refuses to let me in.


  1. Ah, now I understand. I'd been wondering how Cameron's paymasters saw the opportunity for profit in this, given the risk of negative publicity from a case going wobbly. There's one over-arching principle in risk management - Shit Happens - so wobbly will happen, as it happens all the time. So it will all be Probation's fault, no matter what. You have to hand it to them really - quite brilliant.

    1. Indeed it is. About as brilliant as making the home probation officer, or offender manager as they insist on calling us, the person in charge of a person's progression through a prison sentence. Perfect sense for the person furthest removed from the prison setting, and hence knowing the least about the prison regime, in charge of making key decisions.

  2. (The same anonymous) Oh yes - the Offender Management Model. Straight out of Great Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I recall a conference with a ROM/DOM/whatever excitedly setting out his "vision" of Offender Managers rolling up to prisons, drawing their keys (yes - really!) and striding off into the establishment to seamlessly chair their Sentence Planning Reviews. The audience clapped politely whilst all those who'd actually worked in prisons inwardly cringed and silently hoped against hope that this person wasn't in charge of anything important. Happy days.

    1. Wouldn't be Paul Wilson by any chance would it?

  3. You may suggest that but I couldn't possibly comment.

  4. For the twenty years I have served the Public Sector I am constantly being told and reminded of the importance of communication. When children die it is because people have not communicated. When adults die it is usually found that communication has been lax. My biggest fear for this transformation as described, is how franchise agencies will efficiently communicate the holistic risk issues and how this will be managed to prevent further tragic incidences occurring. I speak as a former Service Woman and from a career when communication and most importantly good leadership not management were imperative to save lives. Government take note.

    1. Yes I think you are absolutely right. There will be tragic consequences as a result of fragmentation and in extreme instances fatalities will occur. I don't think it will give any of us satisfaction in being able to say 'we told you so' even though the evidence will remain here on the internet for years to come. It's so obvious isn't it?

      Thanks for commenting.