Organising chaos in probation

Published June 2005

There is an old saying that a camel is really just a horse which was designed by a government committee. So it seems to be with NOMS – the new National Offender Management Service which is due to merge prisons with probation.

The project is struggling so badly that even the private sector security companies who originally joined forces with the Treasury to promote the idea of a single correctional agency, are losing faith. Now, they have warned ministers, it is “one step away from chaos”.

Their main complaint is that the Home Office is well out of its depth, attempting to manage a change for which its officials have no expertise. “It’s like putting a goat in charge of an orchard,” according to one well-placed observer.

There have been awkward meetings between Home Office officials and senior executives from the security companies. “The executives go in and say ‘How are you getting on with your process mapping?’ and the officials just look blank. The executives tell them it’s like running a credit card business: you need relational databases to manage information about individuals, so you need organisational design and data management. The Home Office don’t really know what they are talking about.”

The security companies have complained that the Home Office have gone for the wrong model in the first place. “The private sector said there were two choices. One was incremental change, where they spent a couple of years merging the people at head quarters and then set up offender management. The other was to shoot the moon and try and change everything in one go. The Home Office went for the second. The private sector told them that was ‘very bold’. They got chaos.”

We have been told that the decision to ‘shoot the moon’ was taken by the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who announced the creation of NOMS in January 2004, only one month after receiving the Carter report on reoffending, which originally suggested it. According to another source: “Blunkett insisted generally on not listening to his officials – like people who never expected to live in a country house who suddenly inherit one and treat the servants like dirt in order to prove they can behave like real masters.” Senior manadarins, who had been warned of the dangers, we were told, failed to confront Blunkett: “They decided not to give advice if it was unwelcome.”

When the new chief executive of NOMS, Martin Narey, hastily produced his detailed model for the project, the public service delivery team at the Treasury didn’t like it; the probation boards and the unions said it was unworkable; the Office of Government Commerce ran a ‘gateway review’ and mauled it; the private sector companies took fright; and, a few months later, Narey was forced to withdraw it, bravely declaring that he was glad he had conducted such a successful consultation – rather like a man in a top hat and tails at a garden party who accidentally falls into the swimming pool and who surfaces soaking, grinning like a skull and declaring that he felt like a dip.

Nearly a year and a half after that hasty start, Narey’s team at headquarters has set up ten Regional Offender Managers, known as ROMs, at an annual cost of some £3 million. At some point, in some way, they are to take charge of commissioning services from prisons. One prison governor told us that so far he had received only one instruction from the existing prisons hierarchy, which was to ignore any instruction he might receive from any ROM. The ROMs also are due to start commissioning services from probation . Originally, the Home Office planned to do this by passing legislation to scrap the existing 42 probation boards. Since then, they have changed their minds repeatedly, considering a) allowing the probation boards to stay, b) allowing them to stay with no effective budget or power, c) scrapping them but without legislation.

The private security companies have had their own problems with the ROMs. “They have given up on the Home Office, because things are just cementing over up there, so they have been trying to nobble the ROMs. But they’re no better. They’re saying that most of the ROMs don’t know how to specify or purchase services or how to manage a contract, so they’ve given up on nine of them. There’s just one ROM they’re focussing on in the hope that they can still influence things.”

The whole picture is made even more complex by the insistence of the Treasury, backed by the Prime Minister’s adviser, Lord Birt, that the new system be ‘contestable’ – that there must be an internal market, with purchasers who commission services from providers in the form of existing public sector prisons and probation areas, private companies and voluntary organisations. But nobody know who has what role. As one worried source in the Home Office put it to us: “It looks very complicated. We were never that good at line management, but purchaser-provider could be much worse.”

The clear risk of chaos is underpinned by three more profound risks which flow not from mismanagement by the Home Office but by weaknesses in the original concept of NOMS, as developed in the 2003 Carter report.

The first risk is that it won’t reduce offending. In what he declared was a new approach, Carter reached four key conclusions, the first two of which – “offenders should be punished for their crime” and “persistent offenders should be punished more severely” – were the very opposite of being new. They were tried, tested and known to be ineffective: Carter’s own evidence underlined the very limited effectiveness of imprisonment. Yet, Carter proposes to rely on more fines, more community punishment and imprisonment for dangerous and persistent offenders. This pleased Downing Street, because it hit the right political buttons; and the Treasury, because it would cut cost. But clearly there is a risk that Carter is replacing a system that is expensive and ineffective, with a cheaper way of being just as ineffective.

The second risk is that it won’t cut costs, because it won’t cut the prison population. If large numbers of offenders continue as ever to fail to pay their fines and to fail to turn up for community penalties, the cheaper system will rapidly revert to high cost as the courts once again jail them for non-compliance. Exactly this has already started happening in the United States, where Republican state governors have been trying to save money by diverting non-violent offenders from prison, only to find them being recycled back into jail when they fail to comply.

The third risk is that a system that could conceivably have been a vehicle for a new, less punitive and more effective approach will turn into mere control in the community. Securicor, for example, have quietly taken over some 65% of the market for electronic tagging of offenders. “They were very clever and slipped in under the radar in different areas without the probation service realising quite how much they were doing.” Now Securicor are pushing hard to take over from probation officers as providers of community surveillance – the nuts and bolts of ensuring that offenders comply with tags and curfews and regular reports, regardless of whether anything is being done to address their offending behaviour.

In the Home Office’s new headquarters now, they say NOMS stands for Nightmare on Marsham Street. One source who has watched it all from within the department, told us: “They are trying to do three different things – reduce offending, cut costs and introduce contestability. It just isn’t clear that you can do all that in one system. It’s like one of those nightmare second-hand cars you hear about, which are really three different cars welded together.” Or a camel.

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