Saturday, 2 March 2013

Failure Means Success

There are two types of people for whom the ability to positively reframe any situation is essential to their work - politicians and probation officers. The recent Eastleigh by-election provides us with a good example of the former. The Tories didn't win, 'but were only a thousand votes behind UKIP'. Labour didn't win 'but this is Hampshire FFS! UKIP didn't win 'but they nearly did'.

When your client has screwed-up for the third time and another SDR is required, you might note sagely, as I have done on many occasions, 'clearly Mr X does not always act in his own best interests.' Well, until I read Russell Webster's recent piece on Payment by Results and what the prospects were for it's successful roll-out by the MoJ for privatising the Probation Service, I hadn't appreciated that failure might actually be termed success. 

How stupid and naive of me. The notion just needs a bit of positive reframing, as we see here from an expert in the field Frank Curran of SP Solutions commenting firstly on the Work Programme:- 

 I’m a long way from being an expert on employment programmes but there clearly are all sorts of issues both with the design of the Work Programme payment structure and the performance of the primes in delivering on their contracts – a headline performance less than the assumed deadweight is, on the face of it, quite dreadful. However one feature of PbR that I’ve not seen elaborated on anywhere in this context is that the amount of money paid to the primes must be far less than it would have been had the primes been more effective (the contracts after all had up to 80% PbR component). In other words PbR has not incentivised better outcomes as was hoped but it has meant that the state has not borne the full cost of service failure. This is the other side of the risk transfer issue and whilst it is a small mercy ( we would all much rather see the primes being effective and getting people into work after all) it can be seen as part-vindication of the PbR approach – the programmes failed but at least we didn’t have to pay their full cost.

Wow! I don't know about you, but I needed to read that a couple of times before the significance sank in - the programmes failed, but at least we didn't have to pay their full cost! But hang on a minute, aren't these contractors being funded in addition to the Job Centre staff? Anyway, he goes on to speculate how PbR might be regarded in relation to privatising probation:-

 In this context it seems to me that the critical issue in whether or not the approach being adopted with probation will work is how much it is possible to improve on current probation performance. There is a widespread, if largely implicit view, that it's not possible to significantly improve compliance/re-offending rates. If this is true then any organisation would be foolish to commit to a contract with a significant PbR component because the likelihood of failure is pretty high; if it is not true (ie it is possible to significantly improve performance) then a contract with a significant PbR component may be attractive (provided the metrics are right etc). In reality this is very difficult to know with confidence: therefore given the likely focus on price within the process the safest strategy for a contractor to adopt is to aim to deliver the same outcomes (or even maybe worse outcomes) at much less cost – anything else is too risky. In this scenario the state ends up paying less money for the same or worse outcomes (which is what seems to have happened with the Work Programme) which can still be viewed, I suppose, as a positive outcome for the state. However for those who believe that PbR has the potential to drive major improvements in reducing recidivism this outcome would be a grave disappointment.

So, according to this expert, there's a good chance the Rehabilitation Revolution will result in the same or worse outcomes, but at less cost to the state "which can still be viewed, I suppose, as a positive outcome for the state."  

Lets be absolutely clear here. The above reasoning forms part of an assessment by an insider on the case to be made for breaking up a skilled, professional and well-performing public service, on the off chance the result might be worse or no better than now, but at least it will be cheaper. Is that really what we want our public services to aspire to under private operation?

Sign the No10 petition here. 


  1. Your last few posts on this issue have been brilliant.
    After the employment fiasco we had the interpreter fiasco; next month is the DWP fiasco and quickly followed by an offender rehabilitation fiasco.

    Is the government going for a full house do you think.

    Lots of postings these days reference the meerkats with 'simples!' which I absolutely detest; however, in this case, only one word serves: omnishambles

  2. Thanks for commenting - much appreciated!

  3. "She knows there's no success like failure. And that failure's no success at all". Dylan ahead of his time again.