Right now in England and Wales we have a terrible rate of reoffending. About half the people leaving prison will be back there within two years. Not only does this cost the taxpayer huge amounts of money, we’re also not doing enough to help those people prepare for their return into the community. That should be the focus of the probation service. But with staff shortages, poor data and broken systems, there’s not enough time to help people on probation get the skills and treatment they need.
I was drawn to justice issues early on, through a fascination with what makes people do the things they do. And I’m naturally inclined to the idea that no matter what someone has done, you can have a direct influence on how they behave in future years. I’m passionate about having an influence in the probation service, and being part of driving down reoffending because I know digital can play a significant part in it.
As an example of the challenges facing probation staff now, if they want to assess someone’s risk or identify an effective intervention they can spend hours looking in different systems or emailing colleagues in other areas of justice to get the information they need. That’s because systems aren’t well connected, data is duplicated or incorrectly entered and it’s held in different places. The results can be very serious. And we all need to be able to trust that people coming out of prison and being supervised in the community are being managed properly. The role digital can play is at the heart of rebuilding that trust, because we have the levers to fix some of these problems.
We can build faster, better, connected services. We can improve decision making by improving the data. And we create a single view of an individual from custody through to rehabilitation, making their needs and risks clearer. What’s more, we can baseline how long it takes to carry out a task before and after introducing a new service, and look at how giving time back helps professionals do a better job. I’m reminded that last year Gabriel Amahwe, a Regional Probation Director and our frontline staff representative, said the single biggest gift you digital experts can give us is time back with people in our care.
For a year and a half all our focus was on bringing probation back into one nationalised service following an earlier decision to outsource low and medium risk management. We’ve since been through a transformational phase, getting funding to deliver specific pieces of work. The future I’m looking forward to is one where we can use our digital expertise to shape conversations around how money is best spent.
Let’s be clear: are we doing the right thing for the right people, and are we doing it quickly enough? For probation staff of course, but also victims of crime, the family or friends of victims, and the people who have committed those crimes and don’t want to reoffend.
To do that, we effectively need to bring colleagues in policy and the operational front line into our digital teams, so we can start talking the same language, designing for users and sharing the same ways of working. And indeed we already have models to follow in our Manage a Recall and Interventions teams.
In terms of measuring our impact on rehabilitation, we first need to know more about the people who are on probation. Recently we commissioned a piece of research work that should give us more such insights. And I’m interested to see if it changes our focus on how we currently go about rehabilitating people. For example, there was a hypothesis that if we helped people who often lead quite chaotic lives understand the terms of their licence, even by telling them where they should and shouldn’t be, we might stop them breaching those terms and being taken back to prison with little understanding of what they’ve done when the police arrive to rearrest them.
If we’re going to meet the ambitious goals we’ve set ourselves, we must be visible about our work. We need to be challenged by frontline staff and others working on adjacent services and indeed by people on probation themselves. We need to focus our attention on delivering fewer things, so we can concentrate on the work that will turn the dial faster on rates of reoffending. And culturally, I want us to be a high trust organisation. Only then can we be candid about our challenges and tackle them effectively, together.
We have a long way to go but we’ve built a strong foundation for addressing the problem of rehabilitation. And we’re on the cusp of cracking the data conundrum. I feel very privileged to be working amongst the talent we have here and with people so dedicated to our mission, increasing our knowledge, collaborating with people who have a vision and empathy for making a difference in this space.