When Chris Grayling began plotting the demise of the Probation Service he realised there were one or two problems. Even he could see that the public would be just a tad nervous about the private or voluntary sector looking after some very dangerous people, so clearly they would have to stay with a small public service who would continue to carry the blame when it all goes 'Pete Tong'.
Initially it was proposed that the public sector would retain responsibility for everything with civil service staff 'embedded' in contractors offices so as to advise when a case was looking decidedly dodgy and was time to hand it back to the public sector. In this back-of-a-fag-packet process going on down at the Ministry of Justice, they quite quickly realised that this would be rather expensive given the vast number of prime and sub contractors involved.
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.
Timing is clearly of the essence as this article in the New Statesman by Alan White makes clear because in the inevitable blame game that will follow, a private contractor will not want to be associated with the reputational damage that will surely result. The article quotes Mark Ormerod of the Probation Association:-
We understand the provider would be accountable if they hadn’t pulled the triggers. It would come to a review of the case in the way that happens now. The issue we drew attention to is that it’s more likely to go wrong because you’ve introduced an interface. Things go wrong when communication breaks down. And it gets more complicated when some of the triggers have been pulled, and when the person goes forward and backwards between providers it becomes more difficult to assign responsibility - whose fault is it? Risk levels change in about 25% of cases. In some of the cases we’ve looked at, the risk levels change substantially. Low or high-risk cases are easier to manage. They’re the minority though. It’s the bit in the middle where change is dynamic and contextual.
But as the article makes clear, there's not just risk involved here, there's also the small matter of money.
Of course the other thing about this system is that money’s involved: we’ve seen exactly the impact it’s had on the Work Programme. Surely it could mean the providers will be incentivised to pull some triggers and leave others? “Therein lies the difficulty: other factors come into play. They have recognised this - the public sector will be able to carry out renewed risk assessments. It goes back to the point about how the operating model works in practice: it’s difficult to regulate it by contract,” says Ormerod.
Savas Hadjipavlou, Business Director of the Probation Chiefs Association expands on this:
Originally the public sector could pull in a case - we asked how would they know when they could call it in. This is an attempt to say the public sector doesn’t have responsibility for the whole thing. It places more emphasis on the assessment system. But risk assessment is not that precise a science. The culture will be new to the providers. It’s about looking at the behaviour of an individual intelligently, looking at the person intelligently. Is the risk assessment system capable of that fine granularity?
As always, the article is worth reading in full, particularly if there are still people out there who either feel this is all a good idea, or even more bizarrely, think it's all likely to work. After all, you could be forgiven for missing the news sneaked out at 5.00pm on Friday and just as you were on your Bank Holiday travels that a significant number of government projects are in trouble.
Now I'd never heard of the Major Projects Authority before. It's a rare beast being a new QUANGO set up by the coalition government, as opposed to one of the many that got the chop. Anyway, a whole range of projects are going seriously awry and I notice that the MoJ shared services project is one of the 8 in the top red category and the MoJ PbR pilot programme is regarded as amber/red.
The No10 petition still needs more signatures and can be found here.