NAO warns over ICT and data at heart of probation reforms
Watchdog also fears for investment necessary to replace inefficient technology used by probation trusts, particularly systems for offender case management
The National Audit Office (NAO) has raised concerns over the case management systems at the heart of the "Transforming Rehabilitation" probation reforms.
It has also highlighted limitations around data quality and availability and outlined fears over the impact on the technology investment going into community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) amid a general decline in the number of cases going through the justice system.
In its study, which examines whether the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) are managing reforms in a way that will improve the value for money of probation services, the NAO says the performance of CRCs and the National Probation Service (NPS) remains unclear given limitations around data quality and availability.
The NAO report says that data on reoffending will not emerge until late 2017, allowing a year after supervision for offenders to reoffend, and a further six months for offences to be proven in court. In assessing performance by the NPS, the report points out that performance of the seven NPS regions should be monitored monthly through 25 service levels that track offender management from the start of the sentence. NOMS considers that robust data is available for only 18 of these 25 service levels with the NPS performing at or above target levels in seven of these.
However, the report says, NPS managers expressed limited confidence in some of the data due to quality issues caused by laborious and dated case and offender management systems. Although each region has put data quality managers in place, another concern is a reduction in analytical support teams since the separation into CRCs and the NPS.
The report also says that the various ICT systems used in probation casework create severe inefficiencies. New tools used by the NPS for assessing and allocating offenders are "cumbersome" and require "repeated data re-entry", the report says.
Although all CRCs are planned to replace existing ICT systems once they could develop new case management and assessment systems, NOMS suffered delays in developing and implementing the interface required for CRCs to share data on offenders. The interface was due to be delivered in June 2015, but was delayed because of other priorities and increased scope.
Currently, the NAO said, the MoJ was advising that the interface or 'gateway' had been developed and was awaiting joint testing with CRCs' systems.
In summary, the NAO said that it had observed "severe inefficiency" arising from the various ICT systems used.
- Staff attributed several hours per week of lost working time to nDelius, the main probation case management system. Some considered nDelius had been unfit for purpose as a case management tool even before it was laden with additional performance management and contract management functions during the reforms. NPS is making minor changes to the system on an ongoing basis.
-nDelius is not intuitive to use and requires multiple steps for even simple actions. Most staff also complained of losing work they had entered and periods of system unavailability. Staff reported receiving limited training on the system.
- the 'risk of serious recidivism' tool (RSR) used to assess offender risk is unable to pull information from other systems, requiring manual re-entry. Staff complained about the time required to complete the tool and considered that it should not be compulsory for evidently high-risk cases. However, changes in national guidance have removed the requirement to complete the RSR at the pre-sentence stage in all cases. NOMS also found extensive miscalculation and misreporting of results.
- the Offender Assessment System (OASys), for assessing the risks and needs of an offender, requires manual re-entry of information already entered in nDelius and RSR, increasing error rates and diverting staff from productive work; and
- the case allocation system (CAS), which is completed by the NPS on all cases to document allocation decisions, is in part paper-based and also requires staff to re-enter data that are already in other systems. Work to improve its functionality is due to be implemented later in 2016.
The NAO added that to increase efficiency and productivity, most CRCs are installing their own case management systems and ICT infrastructure. The NPS expects to continue with the existing systems for the foreseeable future, it added.
In its report, the NAO also made a point that the contracts signed with the new owners of community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) commit them to achieving economies and efficiencies sufficient to fund the costs of expanded services.
Each transformation programme depends on significant privately financed investment, mainly in the first two years of the seven-year contracts in several areas, including wholesale replacement of inefficient technology developed and used by probation trusts, particularly systems for offender case management and consolidating the separate back-offices run by probation trusts.
However, the NAO said, its fieldwork at four CRCs had identified various effects of uncertainty over future costs and income, including reduced clarity over the timing or level of investment, particularly on ICT and estates transformation.
CRCs now face commercial and contractual pressures to deliver the changes. But the extent and pace of CRCs' transformation plans have become more uncertain because their case volumes are much lower than planned during bidding. Volumes are down between 6% and 36% against the mid-point agreed in the contracts, with one of the reasons for reduced volumes being a general decline in the number of cases going through the justice system, particularly owing to the reduction in crime.
The NAO concluded, "The ministry has successfully restructured the probation landscape, avoiding major disruptions in service during a difficult transition period. But this is only the beginning. If the ministry is to stabilise, and improve, the performance of CRCs and the NPS it needs to continue to address operational problems, such as underlying capacity issues, weaknesses in ICT systems and performance data, and improve working relationships between NPS and CRC staff - some of which are unsurprising given the scale of reforms."
Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier added, "There can be no room for error in the Ministry of Justice's plans to transform rehabilitation. The cost of reoffending to society and the public purse is too great. The scale and pace of reform are all very challenging. We will have to wait and see if the department has created the right incentives for the system to work as a whole to reduce reoffending rates.
"From the NAO's analysis, I am concerned that some of the persistent weaknesses around IT systems and capacity issues put real reform at risk."