First off, Jonathan Gray of the Open Knowledge Foundation writing in the Guardian makes it plain that probation is heading into a knowledge black hole:-
Secret government contracts stop citizens knowing if outsourcing works
The past few months have seen a significant backlash against government outsourcing and the privatisation of public services. A series of high profile controversies around outsourcing giants such as Atos, G4S and Serco have shaken the public’s faith in politicians’ claims that privatisation gives citizens a better deal.
While its advocates continue to argue that outsourcing leads to increased competition, greater efficiency, reduced costs and better public services, citizens are currently deprived of the evidence that they’d need to be able to evaluate whether or not this is true for particular contracts.
Unfortunately it is very difficult to know what actually happens with a public contract unless you are the contractor or the budget holder as the paper trail of documents surrounding most outsourced projects are shrouded in secrecy. While we may know basic details about the total budget and who the contractor is, the public cannot usually access more detailed data about bidding, cost and performance – information that is needed in order to tell whether or not it was money well spent or a job was done well.
Freedom of information rules that apply to public sector bodies do not apply to private providers of public services – leaving citizens in the dark. That’s why we are calling on governments around the world to give citizens the information they need to hold contractors to account. The Stop Secret Contracts initiative asks governments to open up information around public contracts so that citizens can see how public money is spent and what it buys for them.
We think that public bodies and private contractors should be mandated to disclose essential information about public contracts, including the full texts of contracts, bid documents and information about contract formation and performance evaluation. At the moment we’re supporting local campaigns around Berlin’s new airport (so far three years overdue and six times more expensive than planned) and a major new infrastructure programme in Brazil.
Contrary to decades of political support for privatisation, an increasing number of researchers and campaigners are arguing that outsourcing does not give citizens the better deal that its proponents said it would. The recent crisis of confidence in government outsourcing has fuelled widespread calls for renationalisation and a revival of public ownership of essential public services and infrastructure – including health, utilities and transport systems. Recent polls suggest that moves to renationalise are supported by the majority of the British public and Labour are debating whether to renationalise the railways ahead of the 2015 general election.
Meanwhile, public sector bodies continue to heavily depend on bringing in private contractors to deliver public services. If recent reports are anything to go by there is little sign to suggest that the general trend towards government outsourcing (which has doubled under the current government) is slowing down.
Increasing transparency around public contracts would enable greater accountability around how public services are being delivered to citizens. And not just in relation to big contracts and services in headlines and political speeches, but across the whole gamut of government funded goods and services for citizens.
The current government has been keen to increase transparency around the spending and performance of cash-strapped public services, urging citizens to “join the hunt for government savings”. But they have been much slower to take measures to extend transparency to private companies in receipt of public money.
Opening up more information about government contracts is an essential step towards a broader, evidence-based public debate about the future of Britain’s public services. Until these asymmetries in information are addressed, all the public have to go on are politicians’ promises.As TR marches on, even HM Inspectorate of Probation has noticed that the Service is descending into a fog where accurate information is getting ever more difficult to obtain:-
In March 2014 the Secretary of State asked HMI Probation to investigate whether, as a consequence of the proposed Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) changes, the workload of staff in Probation Trusts had increased during the period leading to the TR go live date of 01 June 2014. This has been achieved by conducting a desk-top inspection of the caseloads being managed by Probation Trusts in February 2014, in comparison with those held twelve months ago in April 2013, and an examination of Human Resources data held by Trusts and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) relating to posts and vacancies.
Information requests were made to the National Offender Management Service Performance and Analysis Group (NOMS PAG). Whilst staff were helpful they were also under considerable pressure to deliver significant change and it was sometimes not clear who owned or was responsible for which information. It was also clear that the quality of the data supplied by Probation Trusts to NOMS PAG was variable, limiting the reliability of centrally collated data.
Certainly there is a need to focus on developing the quality of human resources data to support future work. For example, the data concerning the number of staff in post and average caseloads was not particularly refined. It could not be broken down by different types of operational post. Furthermore we were unable to clarify vacancy levels in Trusts. That reality significantly limited our ability to draw conclusions related to workload. Specifically we were unable to deduce from the information supplied how many of the staff vacancies were Senior Practitioners (SP’s), Probation Officers (PO’s) or Probation Service Officers (PSO’s) rather than support functions, like administration staff or managers.
As we have indicated in this report, it is important to note that in the absence of sufficient relevant data it has not been possible to evaluate the impact of vacancies and temporary staff on caseloads, or to examine whether Trust’s as a result were disproportionately experiencing changes in individual caseload numbers. But when taken as a whole increases in workloads were minor and were not statistically significant.To all this we can add the politicians usual desire to bend statistics in order to support some argument or other. In trying to support the idea that the prison system was not in crisis, Chris Grayling recently suggested that the increase in population had been unexpected and as a result of a sudden influx of convicted historic sex offenders.
However, this notion was forensically demolished by the BBC Radio 4 'More or Less' programme last week. Their analysis clearly pointed the finger at a steady rise in sentence length, coupled with a dramatic fall in prisoner releases as being the main drivers of the current spike in prisoner numbers. Contrary to what Chris Grayling would have us believe, the present crisis is entirely predictable and the direct result of his policies. Catch the relevant clip on i-player here.
Of course the situation is likely to get a whole lot worse if the government finally go ahead and decide to increase the sentencing powers of magistrates, as reported recently in the Times:-
The prime minister has promised to double the sentencing powers of magistrates from 6 to 12 months by the end of this parliament. It would mean more than 10,000 extra cases being tried by magistrates rather than the crown court, and would save up to £40 million a year. It comes as new figures show the numbers of magistrates in post at their lowest for years — 20,000 in England and Wales — because of falling workloads.Rather than saving £40 million, it's widely believed that allowing the lower court to impose 12 months custodial sentences rather than the present six month maximum will result in a further significant increase in the prison population, thus just shifting costs to another part of the Justice budget. Tweeting on the subject, Francis Crook of the Howard League is clear on the matter:-
The last thing the government should do is allow magistrates to send people to prison for up to a year, would fill prisons.Finally, lets mention Serco again. Here's their CEO talking to thisismoney in the Daily Mail:-
'I’ll mend hurt Serco,' vows boss Rupert Soames
Serco boss Rupert Soames vowed to rehabilitate the ‘traumatised’ outsourcing firm after raiding former employer Aggreko for a finance chief. The group slumped to a pre-tax loss of £7.3million in the first half, compared to a profit of £106 million last year."steering clear of contracts that don’t offer good returns." Sounds like probation and very good advice to me.
Soames said he hoped bringing in Angus Cockburn, who served alongside him at the temporary power company, would turn the firm’s fortunes around. He and Cockburn, who replaces Serco veteran Andrew Jenner, were an ‘odd couple’, said Soames. But he promised they could boost Serco by steering clear of contracts that don’t offer good returns. ‘Serco’s like me, good at running other people’s affairs and then you get home and find that the papers for the cattle vaccinations are unsigned,’ said Soames, who is Winston Churchill’s grandson.
‘We’ve got quite a lot of contracts that lose money. If we stop doing that, it’ll be pretty helpful,’ he added. Serco’s profitability has been hammered by setbacks including lower contract volumes for Australia’s immigration service.