Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Time for fewer nostrums

I will nail my colours to the mast: I believe it is outrageous when politicians direct a body under their control to begin or maintain a course of action when evidence shows that action to be (at worst) harmful or (at best) ineffective. Good politicians achieve a balance of ideology, popularity, science and pragmatism. Bad politicians allow this balance to get skewed too far in one or two directions.

Yesterday saw the publication of a report from Policy Exchange (a ‘Right leaning thinktank’ as it is often described) about electronic tagging. You can read it here. To quote the website intro “The report notes that in other countries, in particular the US, ankle bracelets have become smaller, smarter and more durable. The most advanced forms of tags are now GPS-enabled allowing the police to pin point someone’s exact location at all times. However, the lack of competition and the current nature of the contracts in the UK market means the taxpayer is losing out.

In the introduction to the report itself, Chris Miller (a former senior police officer) says “What we have been given instead is a sclerotic, centrally controlled, top down system that has enriched two or three large suppliers, that lacks the innovation and flexibility of international comparators and that fails to demonstrate either that it is value for money or that it does anything to reduce offending.

Not only does this report effectively damn the current commercial suppliers of electronic tagging but also proposes (remember this is a ‘Right leaning thinktank’) insourcing the process.

Meanwhile in Scotland last week it was announced that G4S (famed supplier to London 2012 and one of the suppliers of tagging in E&W referenced by Policy Exchange) have just won a contract to supply tagging to the criminal justice system north of the border. Admittedly, the tagging being provided is of the GPS kind referenced in the PE report.

But… nevertheless… on what planet did it make sense to award this contract? I would love to know whether the procurement process in Scotland included contact with Policy Exchange. Did they share data? How did due diligence ensure that the contract signed with G4S would not also lead to the kind of sclerotic lack of innovation that Chris Miller highlights?

Let me repeat, I am not (really I am not) against the outsourcing of all services. I am not some kind of Orwellian despot who believes that the public services should provide everything from Victory Gin to a telescreen in every home. But as I hope that my article in the Guardian from a few months ago made clear, outsourcing is a veritable minefield of hidden costs (both financial and human) that have often been overlooked. This needs to change. Now!

I really hope that the politicians vying to become Police and Crime Commissioners pay heed to the evidence & science when deciding on the shape of their policing plans. Policing already has far too many nostrums in its practice. Good PCCs will be in the vanguard of introducing more evidence based practice (including commissioning)!

PS But beware commercially sponsored research into finding out what works as Ben Goldacre (as always) highlighted at the weekend. A great, must read article for anyone concerned about evidence based practice in the public services. 

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