This blog is mainly about the governance and future of policing and crime services. (Police & Crime Commissioners feature quite a lot.) But there are also posts about the wider justice system. And because I am town councillor and political activist, local & national issues are covered a little, as well.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Payment by Results won't work

David Cameron, like many politicians, has this notable ability to talk coherently but say absolutely nothing. It is an art form and one has to admire its exceptional practitioners whilst at the same time being exasperated that nothing really changes. And so it was with his speech on crime and punishment yesterday. Lots of warm words but I am unclear as to what is really going to change and what differences will be made.

The Government are investing heavily in 'Payment by Results' which is a kind of service equivalent of PFI, (and we know how well that is working...) PbR maintains that private & third sector bodies can be significantly incentivised to innovate and reduce re-offending by the prospect of making a profit from the results. The profit is paid out of saved costs of locking up the offenders again. Since it costs £40k a year to lock someone up, there are some megabucks to save and spend on PbR, it is thought.

Aside from the ethics of profits being extracted by large companies whilst public services (you know the kind that help house and secure our communities) are being decimated, there is one BIG problem with PbR: it won't work. Sure, it will be made to look as if it works and measures will be negotiated that will allow profits to be extracted, but in the end it is unlikely to make a real difference.

My twitter pal, Russell Webster (who I believe is an agnostic about PbR) writes eloquently about the subject on his blog and I commend it to you for a balanced appraisal of this new 'fad'. I am less balanced as you can see!

Here are my main reasons for why it will not work:
  • Outcomes are extraordinarily hard to agree upon let alone measure. PbR requires an outcome focus (good) but then mechanises it (bad - because that fails to really get a grip of the complexity involved). 
  • The companies involved will spend months (if not years) haggling over the outcome (results) measures so that they privatise the profits, socialise the losses (where have we seen that before?) and generally engineer the arrangements to reduce their risk. (For example, they will actively look for ways to separate out the really hard cases)
  • Reducing re-offending at a societal level is not the same as doing it an individual level and factoring it up... and both are bloomin' hard to achieve! 
Individuals require a complex set of ducks from a whole range of agencies to be lined up whilst the offenders themselves needs skilful support so that they make the best use of these ducks. Often these offenders have serious long term problems (such as illiteracy and a history of mental health difficulties), previously chaotic lives and a large dose of institutionalisation - all of which mitigate against a life free of crime.

Reducing re-offending is a complex social outcome which is not just the sum of lots of individuals choosing to stop offending. Not only do organisations (which are really not good at partnership working) have to make partnership working really work but there are implications here for the rest of society too. Stigma is often what crushes any attempt to help offenders back onto the straight and narrow. Under PbR, who will be responsible for tackling this significant factor?

I could go on. But I predict now four things:
  • We will see similar fiascos to the A4E case (here is but one news story from Channel 4)
  • PbR will not yield dramatic innovation in the support given to offenders except maybe for a few whizzy GPS based tags. 
  • It will be hailed as a success by the Government in the run up to the next general election
  • PCCs will be clamouring to get their hands on the PbR budgets in time for May 2016

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