Are Criminal Justice Contracts Viable?

justice scales and gavelPrivate Sector Companies and Tagging

Many of the responses to last week’s exposure of overcharging on the Government’s tagging contracts have called into question the current plans to contract out much of the Probation Service. Parts of the Criminal Justice System (CJS) have been contracted out for quite some time now and Serco and G4S have received high profile coverage a number of times on these and other Government contracts.  But are CJS contracts actually viable? It is the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) role to manage and monitor CJS contracts but are they always capable of doing so effectively?

Tagging and prisoner transportation are not the only CJS services delivered by a contracted provider. From May 2010 until April this year I was a manager in London for the Bail Accommodation and Support Service (BASS) – a national contract run by Stonham on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. Stonham is part of Home Group Ltd, and began life when three Midlands-based housing charities working with offenders merged in the 1970’s. In other words it is a third sector organisation; not-for-profit.

Bail Accommodation and Support Service

BASS was commissioned by the MoJ in 2007 and was at first run by ClearSprings, who experienced some fairly negative media attention, not least of which after a client was murdered in one of the BASS properties they were managing in Stockton in 2009. That contract ran out in 2010 and it was then that Stonham took over, following a competitive tender process.

We worked closely with Serco, who have the tagging contract in London, to share information that both parties needed in order to fulfil our contractual obligations. This was done under an information sharing protocol approved by MoJ. I found these processes to work well, although often Serco had not been made aware by the courts of changes in a client’s circumstances or of a court order for a tag to be fitted. Sometimes they received this information from us before they received it from the court.

We also had to work closely with several other parts of the CJS – we relied on them for crucial information, which impacted on our ability to meet our contract terms. This included court and prison staff, amongst others, and was always challenging. There are so many different parts of the CJS, some more silo’d than others. Each has a defined role, and each a specific framework and complex set of systems governing their operation to fulfil that role. These do not always dovetail even within the CJS, let alone with third party providers. Often – though not always – the professionals involved were engaged and willing to work in partnership, but the “system” was regularly a hindrance. Occasionally some individuals were less than enabling, for various reasons.

Success Relies on Exemplary Contract Management

The point I’m making is that, as with everything, what you get out of a system or a contract is only ever as good as what you put in. That includes people, processes and information. This is why contract management is so crucial. Of course this starts with the way in which contracts are set up, and many have commented that the tagging contracts were not established adequately. It also extends through the life of the contract and relies heavily on the skill and knowledge of the individual contract manager.

Contract management is a specialist skill. Managing contracts in the CJS is a specialist skill within a specialist area of work within a complex and politically sensitive environment. Not only this, the consequences of getting it wrong are serious; public safety is at stake. It is not sufficient to have sound knowledge and experience of operational delivery of the service at hand in order to manage a contract; the skill of contract management goes far beyond this. It often requires a capacity for forensic interrogation of data, combined with extensive experience in the field of work and sound and intimate knowledge of the specific contract terms. Balanced alongside this, it requires the ability to stand back from the skeleton of the data and facts, and to look at information in its qualitative context to see what is “really happening”.

Can we Afford to Trust MoJ’s Contract Management Capability?

Whilst I support the principles of innovation and mixed-economy, I’m not sure that I have unerring confidence in any government’s ability to consistently meet contract management standards to the high levels that are required for such complex and significant services. During the last three years working for BASS there were re-organisations in the National Offender Management Service that affected those people managing the BASS contract. There were several changes in personnel, and the internal imperatives of the MoJ and NOMS arguably impacted on the monitoring and interaction between contractor and commissioner.

If any of these factors have been in evidence in the Serco and G4S tagging contracts, then arguably the Government is at least partly to blame for things going awry. It has already been noted that they were aware of potential over-charging as early as 2008.

There are many, many reasons why the transforming rehabilitation strategy should be re-evaluated (at the very least the timescales involved), but the issues exposed by the tagging contracts add significant evidence to the case for the defence of the public Probation Service.

Twitter: @BecciSeaborne

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