Civil service reform in action

28 April 2014

With the next General Election little more than a year away, the impact of the Coalition Government’s reforms has come under closer scrutiny and, quite often, criticism. It has been failures to meet targets, rather than successes, which have drawn the most headlines. However, the Public Accounts Committee report, released on Friday, found that there was certainly some good news to be found in the management of the Prison Estate by the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). Through its strategy of closing uneconomic prisons and opening more modern and more efficient ones, it found that NOMS will meet the cost-reduction target of £70 million per year for the taxpayer and provide prisons that are better dispersed geographically with good accommodation for prisoners.

This success is even more impressive considering the speed at which it has been achieved. The prison population almost doubled between 1993 and 2010 and new accommodation was built quickly to meet this rising demand. Expenditure also increased by nearly 40 per cent in real terms between 2003 and 2009. Since the prison population stabilised at around 85,000 in the late 2000s, the opportunity to rationalise the estate emerged and was successfully seized. By 2015-16, it will have resulted in total savings of £211 million and have provided better accommodation for prisoners, according to Friday’s report and another by the National Audit Office published last December.

Perhaps the most striking line from the report is: “the supporting management team…has the necessary commercial, contract management, and estates management skills.” Margaret Hodge, not known for her laudable comments about Civil Service capabilities, commented that “the programme has been well managed and has benefited from experienced and consistent leadership.” These comments are also in stark contrast to recent Public Accounts Committee reports into public service contracting across government, which have criticised the commercial skills of civil servants whom it claimed do not have right skills to ensure that the tax payer gets value for money. They reported in March that “there is a long way to go before government has the right commercial and financial skills to manage contracts.”

The Civil Service Reform Plan states that the Civil Service needs to improve its capabilities in: leading and managing change; commercial skills and behaviours (including contract management); delivering projects and programmes; and re-designing services and delivering them digitally. The rationalisation of the Prison Estate is evidence that the Civil Service is growing capability in all four areas: they have led change by shutting 13 less efficient prisons and opening new ones. They have demonstrated commercial skills by managing contracts for 14 privately contracted prisons. They are delivering projects with two new prisons, HMP Thameside and HMP Oakwood, opened and further builds planned in Wales and London. Finally, services are being re-designed so that the planned lifespan of prison capacity built today is 60 years, compared to just five years for some prefabricated units erected in the 2000s. In addition, these new prison designs can also be easily converted to different security category status if required.

As noted by the Public Accounts Committee, the key to these successes has been the consistent, knowledgeable leadership across the lifespan of the Prison Services’ projects. The rapid turnover of civil servants is often criticised across all departments in the public sector; this turnover means that ‘sector knowledge’ can be superficial and short-term in its outlook. In addition, accountability for decisions and spending has little impact because the likelihood is that the decision maker will no longer be in post once the consequences are understood. The description of the Civil Service as ‘permanent’ can be a misnomer at all levels of the Civil Service; however, the Ministry of Justice has had only two Permanent Secretaries since 2007. This is in contrast to some departments that average a Permanent Secretary change every year. The success of consistent and knowledgeable leadership that is competitive, engaged with the public sector and successfully delivers projects must be a wider lesson for Civil Service reform.

Both this report and that of the National Audit Office last December, pointed out that whilst management of the estate was producing the required savings, it was not all good news, and the performance of prisons needs to improve. It was found that sometimes there was a lack of purposeful activity for prisoners to meet their rehabilitation needs and also free up much needed prison spaces. With the Prison Service now achieving its role to provide safe and well-ordered establishments, the next challenge is to improve our prisons to help prisoners to lead law-abiding and useful lives; purposeful activity and access to treatment programmes are vital to achieving this. Competition has proved on numerous occasions within the Prison Service to be the spur for innovation, quality improvement and cost reductions. The flexibility brought by the private operators has been found to improve staff-prisoner relationships and result in more positive prison environments. Whilst the Government considers its approach to improving prison performance, it should not ignore the positive role competition can play. The Civil Service has proven that it has the skills to manage successful change in the Prison Estate. It now needs to harness these skills in a competitive environment to deliver better performing prisons.

Blog by Katy Sawyer on success in civil service reform from the PAC report on managing the prison estate

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