Payment-by-results: Groundbreaking innovation or government gimmick?

Of all the Coalition’s new ideas regarding how to cut reoffending, and how to inspire foundational behavioural change in offenders, payment-by-results (PBR) is probably the initiative that has gained the most attention, both in academic and media circles.

At present, PBR pilots are currently operational in a number of establishments across England and Wales, including HMP Peterborough and HMP Doncaster. As well as these prison trials, there are a number of community, work programme and innovation pilots that have been announced by the Ministry of Justice.

For those that are unsure exactly what ‘payment-by-results’ is, it can be defined as ‘providers from the private, public and voluntary sectors working  in partnership with the government to innovate and invest in programmes that work to rehabilitate offenders  and are paid by the results they deliver.’

At the outset, this raises an obvious question. Can an initiative aiming to bring about widespread reductions in reoffending and seeking to attribute change in an offender’s behaviour to a particular programme be compatible with desistance theory? That is, the notion that the individual ultimately owns their own change, or potential change in offending behaviour, thus meaning that any programme can only create the environment to encourage change, and not actually ‘own’ it outright?

This rather meaty query was discussed at length at the recent Safe Ground symposium at the House of Lords, at which Richard Garside, Director of the Centre of Crime and Justice Studies, stated that he was sceptical that payment by results could deliver desistance because of the way in which some of the smaller charities operate. That is, due to these smaller voluntary organisations having very tight cash-flows, it is perhaps difficult for them to operate in an environment when payment isn’t given until ‘results’ can be seen to have been achieved. He also commented that payment by results would mean that ‘risk’ is transferred from the public sector and larger organisations in the private sector to the smaller voluntary sector organisations. He noted that ‘results’ could be hard to quantify, particularly in the short term. Finally, Richard expressed concern that a ‘black box’ approach would mean that information sharing regarding best practice would be hard to realise in a ‘payment by results’ environment which is primarily concerned with ‘what works’ rather than ‘how’ or ‘why’.

Digby Griffith, Director of National Operational Services for NOMS, on the other hand, gave tentative support to payment by results arguing that the ‘market’ could introduce and drive innovation in terms of desistance, although he stopped short of saying that this approach would definitely work. He confirmed that up-front payment would be provided for the service with extra 5-10% awarded if the particular intervention ‘works’, although exactly how reoffending will be measured remains up for discussion. Digby also added that larger providers in order to provide a desired integration of services might have to conduct business with some of the smaller organisations.

Indeed, the issues raised by both panellists have come to the fore recently, as the Greater London Authority has robustly denied that it covered up findings of a draft report into a reoffending scheme at Feltham Young Offenders Institution backed by current mayor Boris Johnson which criticised the payment-by results model as the scheme lacked sufficient up front funding. Interestingly, the report said that members of the organisation, Rathbone, sometimes felt conflicted between pushing for their targets to be reached (in terms of reoffending) and meeting the needs of the young involved with the particular programme.

At such an early stage, it is impossible to know whether the payment-by-results model can deliver reductions in reoffending.  With the prison population continuing to escalate, the need for innovative policies is all too apparent yet there remain serious question marks over the models compatibility with desistance theory and with a criminal justice system still reeling from the Chancellor’s axe.  A report on the planning and early implementation of the Social Impact Bond at HMP Peterborough allayed concerns over the attribution of results where several agencies are delivering interventions in overlapping areas and it is inevitable that the metrics selected to define success will be contested by some as partial or insufficient.[1] This sense of uncertainty was reflected in a questionnaire completed by over 50 attendees representing a broad range of agencies at Safe Ground’s symposium, in which 24% agreed that PBR and desistance theory could operate harmoniously, 48% disagreed and 28% felt undecided.

Certainly there are many issues to be clarified, some of which will take time as the system finds its legs. Yet if evaluations of the pilots demonstrate so much as a modicum of success, it is likely to pre-empt a seismic shift in the delivery of criminal justice in this country, for better or for worse.

[1] RAND Europe (2011), Lessons learned from the planning and early implementation of the Social Impact Bond at HMP Peterborough. Ministry of Justice. London, Stationery Office

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