Friday, 23 January 2015

The Final Insult

Anyone who cares to go digging back into the early days of this blog will discover just how often the topic of OASys, the 'world-class' offender assessment system, crops up. Developed by the prison service and foisted upon us, I'm convinced that when historians come to write about the demise of probation in England and Wales, it's OASys that will be highlighted as one of the prime causes. 

This utterly useless and tedious development ensured all probation staff would be effectively chained to their computers for the best part of every day, whilst undertaking the input of data that invariably would be of little or no use to man nor beast. Our productivity dropped like a stone overnight and drove many a good officer to despair. 

I'm clear that it was OASys that 'did' for us and it's no surprise at all that the new owners of the CRC's will ditch it as soon as possible as completely inefficient, ineffective and not at all conducive to making money. And now we have the final insult with the prison service quietly beginning the process of ditching it too. Why? Because it takes too bloody long to fill in; is crap and invariably tells you at the end what you damned well knew before you started. 

It seems incredible I know, but before OASys, PO's were pretty good at weighing up who the risky clients were and for what reasons - we didn't need a shite computer system to tell us what we'd already worked out. Well it looks like the penny has at last dropped down at NOMS HQ that, try as they might to feed the OASys monster, it's just a waste of time and effort, so here's the prison service instructing all staff not to bother too much with the ones that aren't that risky! 

There's to be a 'review' obviously, but who'd like to place any money on OASys still being around in a year or two's time?  


Gordon Davison, Dep Dir, OMPPG

Ian Mulholland, Dep Dir, Public Sector Prisons
Brian Pollett, Dep Dir, Custodial Services Contract Management

Date: 21 January 2015

To: Governing Governors

cc: NPS DDs
Heads of OMUs


Dear Colleagues

You are all aware of the current pressure on resources. This means that prisons are struggling to fulfil their responsibilities with regard to OASys assessments, with a substantial backlog of offenders in the system that lack a current assessment.

It is essential that high priority offenders have full risk assessments in order to inform sentence plans and reduce risk to the public. It is also important that all offenders get at least minimum levels of risk assessment so that the riskiest offenders are identified. In spite of significant efforts made at establishment level, including through staff working overtime to complete outstanding OASys, the backlog continues to grow. In the interests of prioritising the resources we have, we are issuing an interim OASys prioritisation policy for custodial cases. (NB: This does not affect the Basic Custody Screening.)

The interim policy does not represent an amnesty - that is, NOMS is not ‘writing off’ any outstanding assessments. However, the interim policy places offenders into three priority categories for completion of OASys and means that any offender falling into the lowest priority category (Priority C) may be assessed using only a Risk Review within OASys, comprising offence details (in order to calculate OGRS) and risk of serious harm screening (with full RoSH analysis where triggered). This will be sufficient to ‘count’ as an assessment and therefore should help to address the backlog, and enable more of the higher priority cases to be fully assessed (Priorities A and B). Changes have been made within the prisons’ OASys system to enable the Risk Review to be carried out in the ‘Layer 1’ short format (or in ‘Layer 3’ where a previous assessment exists).

We expect this to save a significant amount of time, thereby allowing more assessments to be completed on the right people, and to the right standard.

This prioritisation policy is directed only at prisons, because all OASys that currently fall to NPS to complete (IPPs, start OASys for lifers and high RoSH cases) are considered high priority. It therefore remains critical that NPS colleagues play their part in helping to ensure assessments for which they are responsible are completed in a timely way. Information exchange will also be crucial; wherever OGRS and risk of serious harm are identified at court, this should be made available to the receiving prison as soon as possible.

Good quality assessment of risk and need remains a critical component of effective offender management. As many of you are aware, we are in the process of carrying out an Offender Management (OM) Review. This will include consideration of how we can streamline, improve and better target offender assessment, using the resources which are available to us. As you will see from the way we have had to set out the interim prioritisation policy, the current policy for OASys completion is far from straightforward, which provides further impetus for the OM Review to consider how to streamline this vital area of work.

The Review will report in June 2015 with recommendations for implementation, at which time the interim policy will also be reviewed. The interim policy will be replaced once recommendations from the OM Review are agreed and implemented. Further advice will be issued in due course with regard to the recording of completed and outstanding assessments.


  1. This post did make me chuckle because it has been clear to any offender who has ever undergone the ridiculous OASys assessment process that it is a complete waste of time, effort and money. The level of risk that the system regurgitates at the end of this fruitless exercise bears little resemblance to anyone's actual risk level because of the way the questions are structured and the fact that the really important questions are not asked and offender input into these assessments is negligible at best. Every single OASys I ever had done by four diferent OS's and OM's had zero input from me despite the PI's and good practice making it clear that they all should have had my active input. The fact that I am a human being and not a crime statistic and the only person who really knows what my risk of reoffending is (the OS's and OM's clearly don't as none of them having bothered to get to know me as a human being) is completely ignored so the end result of any of these stupid OASys analyses bears no resemblance to my actual risk level making the whole exercise completely pointless.

    1. Agree completely. I was one of the handful of prison & probation staff who (thinking that a single comprehensive risk assessment tool was a good idea in principle) voluntarily embarked on piloting the original OASys, an unwieldy paper exercise of 48+ pages with tables to convert a series of numbers into scores - a bit like Jackie comic used to do when telling girls what sort of man they should marry. I recall being at a final meeting in London (on the day of the total eclipse 11 Aug 1999) watching Danny Clark & other NOMS staff totally ignore or rubbish the feedback from frontline probation and prison staff - they already knew what they wanted OASys to do. Still, Mr Clark was well rewarded. In a 2010 book entitled "Psychological Therapy in Prisons and Other Secure Settings" there's this acknowledgment:

      "Danny Clark OBE is Head of Substance Misuse, Cognitive Skills and Motivational Interventions at NOMS. He was previously the Head of the Attitudes, Thinking and Behaviour Interventions Unit at NOMS. He was responsible for the research on and development of the Offender Assessment System."

      Being a bit of a compulsive obsessive (hoarder, pedant & all round nerd) I've probably still got some of the original guidelines in the roof-space.

    2. Oh, just thought I'd add that the man I married kicked the living crap out of me. So don't believe what the scores on the doors tell you. (And yes, I still have that copy of Jackie, with all the scores filled in, from 1972).

    3. Danny Clark OBE - looks like he'll have a place in history then as the guy responsible for the demise of a whole profession....


    1. A senior judge has set out plans to "streamline" the "inefficient, time consuming and... very expensive" justice system in England and Wales.

      Among Lord Justice Leveson's ideas are more use of evidence from cameras worn by police, and flexible court hours.

      The BBC's Clive Coleman says parts of the report could "dramatically change the criminal justice system", affecting the right to opt for trial by jury.

      The government said it wanted to work with judges to improve the system.

      It has already announced a £160m scheme to replace courts' "outdated paper-based system" with "digital courtrooms".

      Lord Justice Leveson, the third most senior judge in England and Wales, said the criminal justice system must expect "diminished resources for years to come" and needs to be efficient.

      His report, commissioned by the Lord Chief Justice, also calls for government money to fund the changes.

      His recommendations, which he said would not require legislation, include:

      more use of technology to allow "remote hearings"
      "tighter case management" by judges, including, in appropriate cases, the provision of timetables for evidence and speeches
      more "high-quality equipment" in courts to ensure footage from police body-worn cameras can be shown
      "flexible opening hours" in magistrates' courts to accommodate those who cannot attend during normal working hours
      contracts requiring "greater efficiency" from those who deliver prisoners to courts, to avoid delays

      By Clive Coleman, BBC legal affairs correspondent

      Lord Justice Leveson has made recommendations largely about technology and procedures, that don't require legislation.

      However, in Part 10 of his report he covers potentially radical changes - many of which have been discussed for years - that could dramatically change the criminal justice system. Such changes would be for parliament to decide, but Leveson is nudging it to look at these.

      One is the defendant's right to choose jury trial for offences that can be tried either in the magistrates or crown court. Many who Lord Justice Leveson consulted wanted the court rather than the defendant to have the power to decide whether trial was to be in the magistrates court or in crown court - where trials are far longer and more expensive.

      The right to jury trial began in the 19th Century, at a time when defendants had much less legal protection.

      Is it still right that a defendant can decide to have a jury trial for stealing a newspaper from a shop? Or should that now be decided by an independent judge?

      The judge, who previously led the inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, said the government should make money available to meet the "inevitable cost of changing from the current systems to the more efficient ones".

      "The changes I have recommended are all designed to streamline the way the investigation and prosecution of crime is approached without ever losing sight of the interests of justice," he said.

      "Our conduct of criminal trials was designed in the 19th Century with many changes and reforms bolted on, especially over the last 30 years.

      "The result is that it has become inefficient, time consuming and, as a result, very expensive."

    2. oops - better streamline the blog & remove my version Jim!!!

    3. Yours looked better so deleted mine!

  3. Just back from the roof-space, covered in cobwebs & glitter (?!?). I found a dusty wallet folder with some papers from the 1999 OASys stuff & a letter of thanks from Sarah Mann.

    "Scoring the Joint Offender Assessment Inventory

    There are three different types of responses required... A number of items require specific information which should be recorded in full (e.g. number of previous convictions). Some items require a 'yes' or 'no' answer, (e.g. whether currently employed)... Other items are scored on a three point scale. These are the items where the assessor is required to make a judgement about how satisfactory or appropriate the situation is at the present time (e.g. quality of accommodation; attitudes towards offending). The rating scale below should be adhered to:

    N/A = not applicable
    0 = no immediate need for improvement
    1 = a need for some improvement
    2 = major problems & considerable need for improvement

    A score of N/A means that the question is not relevant to the offender. A score of '0' does not mean the situation could not be improved, but that it meets a minimum level to be judged satisfactory. Scores '1' and '2' indicate that some action/change is required."

    So how to 'measure' if someone's situation was 'satisfactory' or required 'action/change'. I do remember there was heated discussion about what might be regarded as 'satisfactory'.

    I also found a sheet with a collection of the group's feedback comments given in 1999. Here's a selection (remember - this applies to the 40+ page paper version. Spot the difference in 2015?)

    * time consuming
    * dependent on interviewer skills
    * reliability of information sources
    * a lot of work to be accurate
    * repetitive
    * lengthy process
    * confusing question and double negatives
    * difficult to validate information
    * open to subjective assessment
    * needs quantifying/baseline
    * [this section is] a complete assessment in itself
    * took a long time
    * unqualified to complete some sections

    I dare not reveal any more as it might give ideas to the new CRC bidders!

    Crash in the Attic

    1. Sorry for the delay in publishing - got stuck in the spam filter for some reason.

      Thanks very much for heading up into the attic - I was going to suggest it, but it seemed such a nerdy request! I'm so pleased you did because it sheds important light on the whole OASys story. I was told once that Sue Hall was on some development committee that had responsibility for OASys - but not sure about that.

      Sadly, it definitely was the beginning of the end for us....

  4. I have always followed the guidance and produced the OASys saq ( self assessment questionnaire) for my service users to complete and so have their contribution. However, it has been a nightmare trying to do it justice (!) because it has never been consistently completed so I then resorted to printing the last saq off and then using that as the basis of discussion for the next one as the ticking of the relevant boxes appeared random otherwise. To complete this form with any service users with literacy issues can take over an hour (or the whole prison visit time for custody cases) leaving little time for the sentence planning board etc.
    It has never been fit for purpose but I want to assure service users that some POs have tried to engage with them in the completion of OASys. For me the nightmare scenario was the Parole Board's over reliance on OASys as if it were some magic algorithm. The time I have wasted in Oral Hearings discussing hair splitting scores and interpretation of such when really so much success depends on whether the prisoner is willing and able to engage with license supervision ie the RELATIONSHIP.....
    I will be delirious if they get rid of OASys altogether and echo the sentiment expressed earlier that the development and use of this tool really was the beginning of the fall of probation.

  5. 'Amnesty' is an odd word to use in this context. Who is Noms at war with? They will never make OASys fit for purpose. Its labelling and data gathering aspects have always been greater than its contribution to risk prediction. Its pseudo science attracted many gullible followers and it gained some undeserved validity but in time it will be shown to have been as useful as phrenology. A waste of time and money. Netnipper

    1. Too true, Netnipper. Who ever thought that the phrase 'Proven risk of Reoffending' actually meant something? Pseudoscience indeed.

  6. When I was first trained to use it I was told that OASys was an attempt to 'standardise' risk assessments as far as possible, trying to 'even out' individual officers subjectivity as a means of making them fairer for all of those they were written about. It also came in at a time when there was great pressure for probation to 'evidence' the thinking behind decisions. This seemed no bad thing in itself. As an experienced officer the completion of it never informed me of anything I didn't know but it did confirm my thinking somewhat . I remain however baffled by the 'weighted' scores. (alcohol use-low weighting ..what?... 'relationships' don't seem to figure but 'education and employment' ? .there's a way to boost your risk up (feeding into the drive to get people into work of course and it must be their fault if they don't have a job).
    Now; what was meant as a tool to inform the assessor has become the oracle with some people thinking that if they can complete an OASys they can assess risk. Others seeing it as fundamental-(often mangers who have never completed one) but when did completing an OASys prevent an SFO as against spending time with the person?
    What started as a risk assessment 'tool' is now trying to fit too many purposes in my view. For example its become a way of recording all of the historical information that used to be held on files, (in part 'A's 'B's etc for those that can recall them.) that now would be lost otherwise.
    I agree wholeheartedly that the OASys generated 'template' PSRs were the kiss of death for the great skill of report writing. People overworked (or who knew no better or had no integrity) would just pull everything through and end up with a disjointed document, full of information that shouldn't be there and would omit the stuff (relationships!) that did inform so much. No wonder PSRs are felt to be less use in court.
    As for the 'risk assessment' your left with- how many umpteen offence analysis reviews have you seen that (end of sentence even) start with '..he stands before the court today...'

    I can't bring myself to just pull everything through and put my name to it- (although someone -another very experienced PO asked me why it mattered as the whole thing was so meaningless now anyway). As a result of my 'thoroughness' an OASys takes me at least the best part of a day-more if its for a parole review considering the emphasis that seems to be put on it all. When I do one its thorough -I also complete the SAQ and spend time explaining the crap wording '...go to places that cause me trouble..?' ( but in truth I hardly do them due to other priorities. My task box overflows and of course they disappear from this if they're left too long so you forget them! (hurrah!) I could be all up to date and tickerty boo if I just pulled it all through and if management start leaning heavily that is what will happen. All of my team (NPS) are in the same position no one is being very 'timely' these days. Get rid and let us work with our clients again.