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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Friday, June 4, 2010

Four obstacles in the face of the final frontier

By Charlotte Alldritt

The sheer breadth and complexity of information and technology policy became all too clear at 2020PST’s roundtable yesterday morning.  Leading officials and activists met to discuss the next stage of open government and online self-services.  This brought us into the territory of – amongst other things – the Coalition’s ‘new politics’ of transparency and accountability; cost efficiencies and cuts; social and digital inequalities and the prospect for more personalised, responsive, citizen-focussed public services. 

 Many, many important points were raised, but four in particular stood out for me:

  •  Culture in government, Whitehall and public services - lack of awareness/understanding of the power of online ‘self services’ to deliver high quality for less is the primary barrier.  There is often a presumption that many public services can only be provided face-to-face and alternatives are ‘too cheap’ to deliver quality outcomes and too risky to implement.  Similar arguments apply with regards to open data.  Determined leadership is vital, but the business case for online service delivery and open government needs to be made.  Only then can we expect to see ingrained cultural attitudes and practices begin to change.
  • Provider capture and vested interests – often there are strong incentives acting against the diversion of citizens to lower cost channels.  While models of funding which ‘follow the user’ can help to support choice and competition in public service delivery (in theory generating cost savings and increased quality), they encourage default face-to-face interaction when alternative channels might be more appropriate and cost efficient.
  • Scale – the issue of scale often brings to mind the age-old debates of local vs central procurement of IT systems, software and shared services (for example) and delivery/administration (e.g. housing benefit).  But it also demands we consider the level at which we are trying to engage users and achieve certain outcomes.  For instance, are we trying to enable communities – whether for a locality or other common cause – to work together more effectively via social networking?  Or transform national public service institutions and systems?  Do we need to employ different tactics and strategy to achieve both of these aims? 
  • Public voice – how can the public voice demanding online access to information and services be rallied to push government and providers?  How do we ensure (and reassure the public) that it is as easy and secure to log on to public services as it is to access internet banking? 

Much is already happening in response to many of these four points.  The progress of and the Coalition’s commitment to publishing  data online is a good start.  But the withdrawal of funding Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s web science institute is a major blow.  More than ever – at a time of cuts and cost savings – technology should not be thought about as an expensive ‘bolt-on’ in the hope of making bad services slightly better.  Not least because in practice this (by lack of coherent integration and design) often makes matters worse.  Instead, it’s about using existing and emerging (typically low-cost) communication technologies to enable citizens to work with public services in a way which enables better outcomes at lower cost. 

But I’m at risk of sounding too tech-evangelical.  What is needed is to build the evidence base and let the argument speak largely (and loudly) for itself.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Paying by Results to Reduce Re-offending

By Lauren Cumming
Wakefield prison

Wakefield prison

I went to an interesting round-table discussion this morning at the smf. The smf has been working on the question of how you could model a system of payment by results to reduce recidivism rates.

The smf has done some good thinking on this, having already undertaken a number of consultations before the round-table, so they had some slides to explain what they thought were the five biggest issues that would need to be dealt with before PbR could be put in place. These were:

Measuring re-offending: How accurate are reconviction rates as a proxy for re-offending rates? Are they accurate enough to contract on?

  • Capacity and geographical dispersal: Many short-term prisoners are held far from their communities, and are also moved around for various reasons, disrupting attempts at rehabilitation.
  • Case mix: Will providers ‘park’ offenders that are considered ‘to difficult to rehabilitate’?
  • Profit motive: Would the profit motive that drives providers create perverse incentives in probation’s role to provide sentencing assistance to the courts?
  • No cost saving to the criminal justice system: Will cutting re-offending actually make savings, or will prison places simply be occupied by new offenders (‘backfill’)?

Participants flagged numerous problems with the smf’s proposed solutions to these challenges. On the measurement question, there was a suggestion that a binary measure (either they are reconvicted or they aren’t) was perhaps not the best, and that a measure of the number of reconvictions may be more appropriate. The idea was put forth of taking into account the severity of the crime, but this was quickly dismissed as too subjective.

On capacity and geographical dispersal, the smf proposed holding short-term prisoners in dedicated prisons. The was objected to, since more, smaller prisons will be more expensive, and also often it is necessary to have a mix of prisoners on remand, short-term and longer-term prisoners, for reasons of maintaining order.

Doncaster inmates

Inmates at Doncaster Prison

On case mix, the smf seemed to think this was not an issue, since the short-term prison population would be mostly non-violent offenders. This assumption was put in doubt, and questions about prisoners with multiple and complex needs being ‘left’ were raised. The smf proposes an ‘escalator tariff’ which would increase depending on how difficult an offender was to rehabilitate, but there were questions about how one would set those tariffs.

On making savings, the smf’s argument was that there would be wider gains to society, but this is sounds rather weak in the current climate.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the seminar focussed on a model for those offenders sentenced to less than 12 months in prison, which precluded any discussion of the best segment of offenders to target for a system of payment by results. I personally have my doubts about what the length of the sentence tells us about how prepared an offender might be to give up offending. Of course, we don’t want to work with offenders that will give up on their own very soon (this would be deadweight cost), but neither do we want to work with offenders that are extremely unlikely to change their behaviour. We need to find the appropriate target group between these extremes, which may be males aged 18 years old regardless of sentence length, or some other group.


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