Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Probation - Some Tips on Bidding

Up and down the land some very smart people are at this minute engaged in a great deal of cerebral activity connected with our line of work. To put it bluntly it's all about trying to decide the answer to a tantalising question. Is there money to be made from probation, or like the Work Programme, is it a recipe for disaster?

At this point it might just be worth mentioning a recent article in Private Eye and picked up on by the 'Watching A4E' website. Apparently Chris Grayling met with A4E directors last July when still at the DWP and it was obvious the Work Programme was failing and A4E was enmeshed in a wave of bad publicity. It seems he told them "In 6 months it will all be forgotten" and he was grateful for what they were doing. I just thought I'd mention that Chris because we haven't forgotten!

Anyway, Chris Graying moved on to the MoJ and the same suspects and the same PbR payment methods are to be introduced for the privatisation of the bulk of probation's work. So it's fascinating to see what the current privatisation industry thinking is. Richard Johnson was managing director of Serco's Welfare to Work and in a recent article on his blogsite 'Buying Quality Performance' outlines in stark detail how probation contracts will be won and operated in order to make a profit. He takes an example of one contract area currently costing £30 million after stripping out the cost of assessment and high risk offenders:-  

If we are to win this contract, our tender will have to meet a quality ‘threshold’. But we are old-hands at this outsourcing game and know how to tick all those boxes. It comes down to price.
We know that the MoJ is looking for a 30% cost saving. We are going to have to bid at around £20m per annum. For this, we will take on all court-directed activity, including new supervision orders for people receiving sentences of less than 12 months. It is not going to be easy! But our Board are very keen indeed for us to secure this contract. They have, after all, agreed with the shareholders some stretching growth targets that can only be achieved through new contract wins.
We will inherit in Area F the ‘newco’ of transferring probation staff. In order to make it work, we will have to: strip out overhead; look for significant redundancies on the frontline; take the remaining staff through a radical cultural change programme, rolling out a new rigour in performance management; and also find ways to deliver some of the court orders differently (for example, using call centres instead of face-to-face contact). This transformation programme is going to cost us a lot of money, which is obviously going to have to come out of the £20m too.
To say the challenges are enormous is to understate the position as the article goes on to make clear:-
If we win the contract, the £20m will be paid to us in monthly instalments. Only, it won’t be fixed at £20m for every year of the ten-year contract. It will be reviewed each year to take account of any fluctuation in volumes of offenders. It will also be reduced year-on-year, to make sure we keep improving and growing in efficiency.
If we fail to deliver what the courts require, then MoJ will claw money back. If re-offending rates increase in Area F, then MoJ will claw money back.
In an attempt to focus us closely on rehabilitation, we will only be able to earn profit, i.e. anything over and above the agreed service fee of £20m, if we demonstrate a reduction in re-offending. If we have a massive impact on re-offending, they will even let us earn “super profit”, though it will be capped. MoJ are calling this the Payment by Results (PbR) element.
So. We have to take the existing service, plus some extra supervision orders, and deliver it for 30% less money. The MoJ drive us to find efficiencies and to maintain effectiveness with the risk of clawbacks. Additional interventions, over and above the core court-directed service, will have to be funded either out of the money for that core activity or be investment we make at risk, in order to generate a return from profits.
Our initial focus must be just the core contract. We have a massive transformation to achieve. Let’s get the ‘newco’ knocked into shape. Let’s drive for a much smarter core service, targeting a small reduction in recidivism to mitigate the risk of clawback. If we can deliver this for less than the £20m agreed, then that’s our profit.
To show willing to MoJ, we could propose investing some money at risk. But our Board aren’t going to like it. We’ll try to hand that risk down to subcontractors, offering purely outcome-based payments, but after the Work Programme debacle, MoJ are discouraging this. We could try to draw in social investment, but that’s not particularly cheap money and there is, to be honest, insufficient potential return in the PbR element.
I think it's fairly clear that what is being proposed is most certainly not a safe route to assured riches for any potential bidder, in fact it looks pretty much like a recipe for financial ruin to me. The article acknowledges that some bidders might pitch their bids too low and indeed lose money or go bust even, but most significantly makes the following point:- 
What this certainly is not is a rehabilitation revolution. It is not a mechanism to deliver a big decrease in re-offending. In order for that to be the case, real returns would have to be possible from the introduction of entirely new services over and above court orders. This conflicts with the objective of cuts. Payment by Results or outcome-based funding does not necessarily mean additional results – when combined with simple cost-cutting it generally just means de-risking public expenditure through shifting to cash-on-delivery.
The message from this source, that must be regarded as sympathetic to the notion of public service 'reforms', appears to me to be that we really do indeed have the making of an omnishambles here. You could get your fingers seriously burnt and it won't deliver a rehabilitation revolution. I wonder what those Trusts busily plotting to become mutuals make of it? 
So, my top bidding tip is quite simple - don't! 
Sign the petition here instead.     


  1. It's concerning to read that profit is to become the primary focus of offender management. There is many questions relating to ethics that arise from this focus. Not least is the requirement of a constant stream of offenders to manage to keep the 'board and shareholders' happy. It may be a nieve thought but wouldnt the successful rehabilitation of the offenders your charged to manage be the biggest single threat to company profits? In fact, the greater number that offend, the greater profit to be made and the happier the shareholder must be! Its not right at all but, to raise the greatest profits in this area, rehabilitation is simply not wanted. In fact it becomes a dirty word. Why would you kill the cash cow by trying to stop offending?
    So is rehabilitation to be annexed? I think not. I think just like the work programme, small micro companies will spring up selling various aspects of ' rehabilitation', and all trying to feed from the same nipple of good old mummy pig. Unfortunately, the ones who will feed best are the ones with the cheapest shite to sell.
    Surely Mr failing, (sorry i ment Grayling), you learnt from the work programme you developed that not only does this approach not work, but will turn out to be expensive, but will be abused by those who can get their fingers in the pot, and will have a detremental effect on many people and society as a whole.

  2. It never does any harm to have it starkly spelt out: it's not about rehabilitation, it's about doing it for less money - for austerity's sake and in the cause of neoliberalism - and making some profit for the private company. The savings will come from worsening conditions of service for employees and making the service as cheap and cheerful as possible.

  3. And still Probation staff sleepwalk to oblivion. Court staff, lawyers, prison officers show some fight. "Substantial redundancies....rigorous perfomance management " + + . This crap is about to happen. Is there a strike ballot any time soon?

  4. I made the comment above that speaks about the primary focus turing from one of rehabilitation to soley profit. I note the comment posted later that says its not about rehabilitation but simply cost cutting and making money for private enterprise.
    I have to say that the probation service is what it says on the tin, a service. As such there are many people in receipt of our services. Any change of thinking, structure, or service provider is bound to impact and have signifigant consequence on those who receive the services we provide.
    If the private sector are interested in profit only and a focus on rehabilitation is put to the bottom of its pile, then for me (and i believe the service as a whole) its a very important issue indeed.
    I know how the savings are planned. I know the major impact it will have on employees, but i believe the consequences of the forthcoming changes will impact on many others outside of the service.
    And here's something to think about. Non of us want to lose our jobs or get shoved into positions that we dont really want or like, but if any of us were asked tomorrow just exactly what makes the service so essential to keep, and what is it that we provide that makes us better suited then the private sector to provide whats needed, what would your answer be (objectively). I feel if we cant explain that, in any other way then our own individual losses then the battle may already be lost.

    1. The question you pose in the last paragraph is a good one and I've taken the liberty of copying the response Rob Palmer gave on the Napo discussion forum recently. I hope he won't mind.

      "The problem with a lot of these providers is they think that their experience as 'managers' equips them for the world of managing offenders in the community. They lack the insight that would allow them to recognise the nuanced nature of the work. Trouble is, the commissioners at the MOJ who write the specifications for the contracts ALSO do not understand the nuances of Probation practice.

      Can you imagine someone like G4S understanding the need to offer counselling to the admin staff who prepare files on sex offenders? Or a manager from Stobarts who recognise the difference between risk of harm and risk of re-offending? Or the difference between actions borne of fear and actions borne of anger? All they will understand is the requirements of the contract and whether they will get paid. They have no concept of managing non-compliance (I recently had one vol. sector provider complaining about 75% turnout), the therapeutic potential of breach, the subtleties of safeguarding a childs safety when also seeking to maintain family links? If this happens, it will be the end of effective practice, just as the privatisation of 'social care' has undermined the 'care' received by thousands of vulnerable people.

      All these people are interested in is maintaining the illusion of effectiveness. The details don't matter to them."

    2. They don't know. But what is worse they don't know that they don't know. I think they call it unconscious incompetence. Not so badwhen you are learning but seriously dangerous when you are in charge. This must not happen.

    3. I wonder how you know all this and with such certainty? Have you talked to the people who are writing the specifications? Have you talked to the people who will be writing the bids? Do you know who will be advising bidders and evaluating the bids?

      The thing is you could equally be accused of not knowing what you don’t know, and your opposition to change is down to your ideological belief that only public sector employees can deliver public services. You don’t approve of profit, but many people don’t approve of public servants who have jobs for life and are protected from being accountable for their actions. Whether it is fair or not – I would guess that most ordinary members of the public that do not enjoy your security of employment would equally ‘know’ that your opposition is motivated by trying to protect your privileged position.

      I happen to agree that there are some very real questions as to whether VCSE and private sector firms entering a new market will fully understand the nuanced approach that you point to. The fact that it will be the same probation staff delivering those services following the transfer will offer some comfort I guess. But the way this is presented above is polemical and is in danger of being dismissed as such.

    4. Why change something that is working? Remember at the moment we don't supervise the under 12 months custody cases - that's a separate issue.

      The answer is it's all about saving money - and the government has a naive belief that this can be achieved whilst increasing the total amount of work with the under 12 month clients, but at the same time reducing overall re-offending.

      Would you like to place your shirt on this being achievable?

      As for the transfer of probation staff providing some reassurance - they will soon be gone either through positive encouragement or simply be being pissed off.

      Of course most of this is polemical - all the evidence supports leaving the probation service running things!

  5. Thanks jim. Thats why the service should remain if not as it is, or even it was. Ifeel really strongly that the considerations discussed abovr are paramount in arguing the case for the service. In a world where nobody's job is safe, gaining support for saving the service wont get very far soley on the basis of job losses.
    Some very interesting news articles this morning relating to the PbR scheme that bring home quite nicely the comments you posted above.


  6. CALL CENTRES? FFS. These people are going to do serious harm.

  7. Are there any magistrates reading this blog. What do they think about call centre supervision.

  8. I am a magistrate, and I don't have a problem with some aspects of probation supervision being by way of a call centre. If that meant the lines could be open outside office hours then this could be really good. I think that there is a danger that probation staff mystify what they do. So far as I can see offenders need to be held to account for their actions, and offered access to some practical assistance. You don't have to be always be face to face in an office to do that.

    1. Richard Johnson has responded to some comments from me about his article quoted above.

      I am not yet reassured and he does not seem enthusiastic about the viability of the Transforming Rehabilitation programme.

    2. This reply is addressing the contribution from the magistrate. I'm grateful, especially as I had sort of assumed I'd lost most of my magistrate readers some time ago and that they had been replaced by probation colleagues.

      I'm really not sure how to respond other than to say that it's completely understandable that a gulf of misunderstanding has grown up between magistrates and probation since the demise of our formal links.

      You will have to take my word for it that 'holding offenders to account and offering access to some practical assistance' is a tad more complicated and involved than your comment implies and nigh-on impossible by means of a call-centre.

      If these daft proposals go ahead, history will no doubt record whether I am right or not in making this firm assertion. Change is affected by the establishment of a relationship between officer and client. Both research and common sense provide the evidence for this and it cannot be replicated by using the phone.

      As to probation officers falling into the danger of mystifying what we do, I'm truly speechless. I can only encourage you to spend at least a day observing what challenges we face in attempting to ameliorate years of neglect, abuse and damage endured by most of our charges, together with the trouble, costs and harm they in turn inflict upon society.

      It is not a job for the feint-hearted. It is not a simple job and requires an extremely skilled and nuanced approach tailored to every individual.

      The true sadness of these proposals is that this is simply not understood. But just as work programme providers have discovered with the really hard to employ people - they are really hard to employ - the private probation providers will discover that the really difficult cases - are really difficult.

    3. Tolkny,

      Thanks for re-posting Rob Palmer's comment, quoted above and from the Napo discussion forum, on the Buying Quality Performance blogsite. Richard Johnson's response is interesting and worth reproducing here I think:-

      "In fact, a successful prime contractor is very likely to recruit someone with considerable industry knowledge to lead first the design of their operational solution and then the delivery of the contract. They have to demonstrate to the commissioner that they have the requisite know-how. In the case of this probation outsourcing, the incoming prime will also inherit all the experience and expertise in the existing probation staff who have been transferred to the ‘newco’.

      The question, however, is how they squeeze that inherited resource so that its cost matches the price they have agreed with the Ministry – and whether, after squeezing, it is still capable of delivering the nuanced, professional service you describe. As I set out in my blog, the pressure will be on the contractor at least to maintain rates of re-offending at current levels, or have to pay a financial penalty. How much waste exactly is there in the services as currently configured? Is it really possible to strip out 30% of the cost, add in additional service requirements, and still maintain effective practice?

      The commissioner has a responsibility not simply to accept the cheapest tender but to assure themselves that the bider is offering something that: is financially viable, and; appears to set out a convincing, rehabilitative delivery solution. All too often I’m afraid the commissioner fails to apply the necessary commercial scrutiny. Jane and I have written about this before in the sagas of the Jubilee Jobseekers ( and the West Coast Main Line franchising ( ).


  9. Worrying comments from the Magistrate - rather confrms my worst fears......I do wonder how Victims might feel,how safe they feel knowing the perpetrators, who have just decimated their lives, will be held to account for their actions, by some unqualified corporate telephonist?