Prisons and the knotty issue of value for money

28 April 2016

No-one could possibly argue with the proposition that public services should provide value for money for the taxpayer, but it is often difficult to define exactly what value the public should get for its money. Who should receive a service, what should that service look like and how much of the service should people receive? The most important question for policymakers and providers, however, is whether the service provided is valued by the public.

If value for money is a core objective of government policy, it helps if there is a clear and consistent understanding of the value sought: what the service is trying to achieve. The Prison Service has suffered from a lack of clarity for the last 20 years. In the absence of a common view of what is valued, it is not surprising that it is hard to see where prisons provide value for money and where they do not.

Over the last 20 years, the Service’s priorities have changed.  In the wake of catastrophic security failures in 1994 (a mass escape of IRA prisoners from Whitemoor high security prison) and in 1995 (an escape from Parkhurst high security prison), security became the Prison Service’s priority. Massive investment in security followed. The key measure of value became the prevention of escapes and the ability to meet the Service’s new and rigorous security standards.

Time, and public policy, moved on. The measure of value now is the impact prisons have on reoffending and their ability to contribute to the rehabilitation of offenders. Increasingly, too, safety and decency are important components of the value for money equation.

Against this background, Reform’s contribution to the debate around what constitutes good value for money in prisons (read the report, Unlocking prison performance, here) is important and welcome.

Reform’s work demonstrates that:

  • Measurement of prison performance and value for money needs to be multi-dimensional and sufficiently sensitive to demonstrate that a prison that does well on one dimension may do poorly on another
  • The key to understanding prison performance is by valid and well-judged comparison: there is no absolute measure of value for money
  • That the real drivers of value are outcomes, but multiple outcomes may be sought (for example rehabilitative and public protection outcomes).

Most importantly, the Prison Service needs an enduring tool, which is methodologically robust and sufficiently sophisticated, to allow genuinely rounded discussion about prison performance and value for money. A tool which helps prison managers understand their performance in the context of other, comparable prisons. Reform’s work will undoubtedly help.

Kevin Lockyer, Partner, Adaptus Consulting

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