Saturday, 11 February 2017

A History Lesson

As we reflect on the demise of the National Offender Management Service, here's a timely reminder from August 2009 with Andrew Neilson writing in the Guardian:- 
Whitehall's great crime mystery

Who knows who's in prison and where they are? Not Jack Straw. C-Nomis has turned into just another taxpayer-funded IT fiasco

Government IT disasters, we know thee well. From everyone's child benefit details going awol to the NHS national programme for IT ballooning in cost and delays, Whitehall's catalogue of errors grows ever larger. Soon, they'll need a database to keep up.

The latest admission of failure involves C-Nomis, the catchily-named computer system that is meant to provide real time access to the records of people in the penal system. Problems with the roll-out mean the Ministry of Justice has just announced that the recent publication of monthly prison population figures – which tell us how many prisoners we have and track characteristics in the custodial population like offence, sentence and age – will be delayed. The delay is indefinite. So right now, as of this minute, Jack Straw doesn't actually know who he has in his prisons.

What's astonishing (or perhaps not) about this news is that C-Nomis is already three years overdue and running at double its original cost. The subject of a damning National Audit Office report published earlier this year, C-Nomis is notorious within criminal justice circles as a byword for incompetence, profligacy and embarrassment.

The C-Nomis story is worth briefly recounting. In 2003 the government decided to implement market reform in criminal justice that mimicked the reforms being piloted in the NHS. This led to the creation of the National Offender Management Service (Noms), which brought the prison and probation services together into one unwieldy – I mean, "seamless", bureaucratic fit. It introduced the concept of "contestability" into the penal system, where "offender managers" would buy custodial places or community interventions from the public, private and voluntary sectors based on cost-effectiveness.

For this market to work, something called "end-to-end offender management" was required. And this in turn required an IT system that allowed offender managers to share information in real time and track individuals at any point in their sentence, either in prison or in probation. C-Nomis was born.

The audit office report describes how a project originally costed at £234m in 2005 had, by 2007, spent £155m, was two years behind schedule, and was estimated to rise in total cost to £690m. The audit office found that budget monitoring was absent, that civil servants "significantly underestimated the technical complexity" of the project and that contractual arrangements with key suppliers were weak. Even worse, Whitehall failed to spot an opportunity to actually make some money. The government failed to patent the work done with their contractor, Syscon, which means that Syscon now markets customised versions of C-Nomis around the world, and British taxpayers effectively see no return on their investment.

Eventually the project was "re-scoped" to bring costs down to £513m. C-Nomis is now only going to be rolled-out in prisons and not in probation, making a mockery of "end-to-end offender management" and putting the efficacy of any market reforms in serious doubt. Not that this has stopped the Ministry of Justice ploughing on regardless. The latest disaster within a disaster that is an indefinite delay in the monthly prison population statistics will no doubt be shrugged off by civil servants as just further attrition.

In his book on organised crime, McMafia, Misha Glenny describes the psychological dependency that scam victims develop with their perpetrator, how the more money the victim loses from sending funds to the Nigerian businessman on email the likelier it is that they will send on more cash in their desperation to will the promise of riches into reality.

There's something of this about how government finds itself wedded to its decisions – not just in terms of funding committed but also to policies. Market reform in criminal justice required "end-to-end offender management", which required an IT system that shared information across the entirety of prisons and probation. That's not happening, but still, millions are being poured in and the system is being contorted into fitting an undeliverable policy agenda. As with so much else that involves Whitehall, there's only one response that comes to mind.

Go figure.


Some of the comments are absolute belters:-

God, someone is finally talking about this! I'm a probation officer (not a f***ing Offender Manager, thanks all the same) and it's a mystery to me why the whole NOMS debacle isn't a national scandal with heads rolling left, right and centre. I can honestly say I cannot think of a single improvement to working practice that has resulted from the project. We've had ROMS (Regional Offender Managers) appointed on fat salaries who we are told would be 'evolving their own job descriptions', then it was decided after a couple of years that the position was not needed and they were all got rid of - to be replaced by DOMS (directors of offender management) on fat salaries who seem to have the exact same job, and a seemingly endless parade of useless bureaucrats paraded before us saying they are "looking forward to finding out about probation and driving through change" before they leave a few years later having made a contribution it's difficult to actually see.

And my God, the IT! In probation nationally we have a custom designed 'assessment tool' running through Lotus Notes that basically consists of about 30pages of boxes to tick on various aspects of punters' lives which then comes up with a number to calculate risk of the person re-offending. Officers have to do one of these on every case every 3 months at least, or if anything notable happens like them getting a job or getting nicked again. Assessment reports for court have to be generated through this program, using a format that gives the IT system all the credit for making the assessment of the person and is more concerned with showing numbers and bar graphs than actual detailed information and a professional's view on the person concerned. 

The problems with this program - eOASys - are constant - the database crashing over 15 times a day sometimes (I kid you not), inability to actually savewhat you've done, prohibitively slow running so evenchecking if someone's on the database can take twenty minutes, connectivity with the prison system (whereby ownership of an individual's record is passed between probation and the prisons) a joke - records lost in the ether where it's unclear who actually has them, requests for access ignored or not getting through so probation staff are unable to do the necessary work on time. The latter point affects the many cash-linked targets attached to eOASys and results in a mountain of shit and bollocking from HQ statiticians for those concerned despite their not being able to do anything about it.

The general IT systems in London don't even work adequately day-to-day: June was particularly bad, with computers for half the probation staff in London (hundreds of people) completely unavailable for over three days at a stretch and four or five single or half days. Such server outages have been common for years, with the server driving the printers regularly going down so reports to aid Courts with sentencing can't be presented despite being ready on time, costing a fortune in public money through ineffective Court hearings. 

It's only in the past 6 months that any acknowledgement of these problems affecting day-to-day work has been made at higher management level - before this it's just been constant bollockings for missing targets because we're clearly not working hard enough. We've been made so dependent on the sodding computers, but the standard and reliability of the technology is getting worse with this, not better.

I could go on but I fear my blood pressure forbids it. I'll finish by letting you know that at present London probation is awash with consultants from AdEsse whose job it is to bully staff into knocking themselves out and neglecting other more valuable work in order to meet targets for eOASys completion and the filling in of forms about ethnicity monitoring and so on - so we can achieve trust status ASAP. Tactics have included enforced shutting down of entire probation offices for a week while staff work on their computers to finish eOASys assessments - no alternative arrangements for people to have actual contact with their probation officers, their appointments are simply cancelled and they are refused entry to the office should they turn up in crisis. In some boroughs, individual members of staff who miss a target (eg finishing an eOASys a day late) are summoned to a meeting with a panel of consultants and higher managers, usually a significant distance from their office, to explain themselves. The time taken out of the working day will make it more likely they will miss more targets or not be able to see people who turn up for their appointments, so the cycle continues and they may eventually be subject to a 'kaisenblitz'. Look it up. Not pretty.

Nextweek an AdEsse consultant will spend two days observing work in my office, and on the basis of this will prepare a 5-day 'Rapid Improvement Workshop' it is compulsory to attend. So an entire week unable to do any work. And we're one of the highest performing offices.

About time someone looked at this scandal which has been rumbling for 2-3 years and which is based on flawed ideas about criminal justice. To those of us who work in the system, it is particularly galling as it comes as our probation services are being told to absorb 20% cuts over 3 years at a time of rising prison populations. (84,150 recently)

Probation as a system is being run down and the result will not be pretty. Prisoners will not be rehabilitated and crime will rise. Its that simple. And yes, I know we are not rehabilitating everyone now, thats because rehabilitation is hard, but imagine how much worse it would be if we rehabilitate less people?

"It introduced the concept of "contestability" into the penal system, where "offender managers" would buy custodial places or community interventions from the public, private and voluntary sectors based on cost-effectiveness."

Who, in their right fucking mind, thought that this would be a good idea? The first thing an incoming government should do is ban anybody with an MBA, or economics degree, from working in any government department other than the Treasury. Unfortunately, the incoming government seems wedded to this managerial economic bullshit, and handing over responsibility to rip off merchants like Capita, Serco, and the 'voluntary sector'.

A fantastic article and yet more evidence of the fact that the entire penal system is in desperate need of long term fundamental reform. The 'Commission on English Prisons Today' published their report last month, following a two-year long inquiry into the state of the system. It recommended the dismantling of NOMS, which is far too centralised and a highly expensive bureaucratic mess, as is clear to see here! The current system is not fit for purpose, and whilst it's difficult to know where to start, organisations such as the Howard League & the Commission have laid out their vision to work towards a society with less crime and fewer people in prison. If nothing else, the Government ought to cut the prison population so that they'll have less prisoner data to attempt to manage/lose!

Check out the work of the Howard League and access the Commission on English Prison's report here:

An excellent expose of a ghastly story. It's rather more than just an IT disaster though, isn't it? It's also a tale of the government's adoration of management consultancy gobbledegook, its blind belief in anything labelled as a market solution no matter how ridiculous or inappropriate and its determination to follow dogma without paying attention to the real world consequences.

Could anyone who had any common sense possibly think this was a sane proposal from any point of view - except the consultants and contractors who would be paid hundreds of millions for dreaming it up, hundreds of millions for giving it a go, then hundreds of millions more for trying to fix it when it does not work, and hundreds of millions again in compensation when it is finally cancelled.

It seems we are inured to this, battered into a sullen and resentful apathy by this government. In a day or two another equally horrifying story will emerge, and we'll forget this one, and it will just go on and on... There are no penalties, not even any shame, for the guilty, just the opposite.

The reason why these IT disasters happen is because IT managers in the public sector are the usual box-ticking, paper-pushing bureaucrats who have long since lost touch with bleeding edge IT development. Some buzz-word salesman comes along and promises to give them an all-singing, all-dancing, IT system which will solve all their woes. The poor, over-worked, manager is only too eager to leave all their woes behind so signs on the dotted line. They forget to read the small print...

Lessons to be learnt:-

1. There is no silver bullet in IT.
2. Public sector IT managers should concentrate on integrating their existing systems, one step at a time, rather than replacing everything with a snake-oil salesman's wet dream.
3. Pay companies only for the functionality they deliver. Have that delivered bit-by-bit - rather in a single magic upgrade. Testable, verifiable, benchmarks are essential in any large (or small) IT project.


  1. What all this shows is that it doesn't matter whether it was pre-TR or post-TR, everybody likes complaining and nobody is ever happy!

    1. No, it means the utilitarian struggle for something better never stops.

    2. It also means bloody OASys was the really serious beginning of our demise.

    3. Thanks to Saint Joe Kuipers for that

    4. No, its thanks to the prison service psychology team who piloted & implemented the "comprehensive risk tool" under the guidance of Danny Clarke, now with some imperial honour or other after or before his name. This was the trojan horse that allowed "metrics" through the back door, and paved the way for Noms once the "big brother" software had been implemented.

    5. Personally I think our problems go back to the work of people like Tony Grapes from late 80's in South Yorkshire (later moved to NOMS & I think now travels the world advising on how to deliver Probation).He advocated a "case management model"in which clients were viewed as cases akin to parcels who could be moved through the system receiving less attention and being dealt with by different grade staff as interventions were delivered/tasks completed;tiering was linked to this and the view that people could be worked with/on such that they had dosages of interventions.Oays was a god-send to this because it made the tiering/dosage/grading of who could work with you supposedly "scientific". Professional judgement and the significance of individual work was less important than fitting cases into a process. One of the most significant under-lying problems with Probation is that it has become such a process-driven operation and staff are constantly having to deal with system-created difficulties (targets/deadlines/IT snags/assessment forms etcetc) rather than focusing on core work with people and the organisations that can support and help safeguard.

    6. Judging from the rise in people who started using the blog after TR, I would say that the unhappiness and complaining started more after TR than before and rightly so.

    7. 23.50. This chimes with my experience of probation. We did not need pseudo science, because probation is not rocket science, it's a social science - about applying criminological knowledge and helping people to change self-defeating behaviours in a person-focused way. A blend of care and control.

  2. Marketisation of Criminal Justice System? To quote from the above, 'Who, in their right fucking mind, thought that this would be a good idea?' How has that turned out? I see no robust defence of the efficiencies, expertise, new innovative services being provided that so called marketisation has delivered, rather the opposite. It's not about moaning but it is anger about a set of nitwits who've brought about chaos in their wake.

  3. They know their policies are shite - it doesn't matter to them because they are lying about their intentions. Fleece public funds under privatisation & bring court system under central control. A fascist regime needs a boot on the face of criminal justice until it suffocates. I don't know what the answer is, but I do know we are sleep walking into something extremely unpleasant with these lying bastards destruction of the state and imposition of extreme right wing ideology. Look at Hunt. It'll be cjs next & privatised courts with G4S ("protecting the world") logos on the courtroom doors.

  4. Every serious case review that takes place makes reference to effective information sharing, so what do MOJ do............have NPS on National systems and 7 separate Case Management Systems for CRC's that depend on the MOJ developed SPG to communicate with nDelius. A Recipe for disaster if ever I saw one!

  5. That's the most damaging aspect of TR, the communication problems. Flying in the face of public protection and common sense. I've heard that in one office a manager wouldn't allow a colleague from the 'other side' water from "their" water cooler. That's how infantile it's become.

    1. No its the real nature of the sort of people all probation officers are. Something wrong with most them sorry to generalise but the is a selfish element.

    2. Your qualification for such a sweeping generalisation is......? Do you have something constructive to contribute?

  6. Plenty of material for discussion being released today. HmP northumberland sounds like a fun place to be!!