NOMS: an obituary
The National Offender Management Service, born 1 June 2004, died 8 February 2017. No flowers by request.
The abolition of NOMS last week greeted with a universal lack of interest. It will be little mourned, even though prisons and probation both did much better during NOMS' first decade than either before or since.
A difficult birth
NOMS was set up following a report by Pat Carter (1). Its conception was unnatural – a forced union of at least 3 different agendas: the introduction of 'end-to-end offender management', reducing the prison population and increasing competition. Its birth was troubled, with Blunkett announcing acceptance of its findings without adequate examination, or real understanding what they implied.
And it turned out to be malformed. Carter didn't go into detail and didn't test out his ideas. For example, he failed to notice that Government had no power either to run probation services directly or contract for them (which remained the case til Government legislated in 2007); or that about half of the resources for offender programmes were actually held outside the prison and probation services, so that making them 'commissioners' for such services missed half of the picture. His report also imagined a situation where the Department both ran prisons directly through line management and simultaneously 'commissioned' services from them, a legal and constitutional impossibility which, bizarrely, the current Lord Chancellor is about to re-attempt.
An unwelcome arrival
From the outset, NOMS was viscerally disliked by many in the prison and probation services, who knew full well how important is was to bridge the gap between custody and community services, but whose tribalism was too entrenched to be comfortable with a merged identity. Probation staff in particular understandably feared being dominated by the much bigger prison service, whose ethos it detested and whose demands for money and ministerial attention always trumped those of probation. All ministers believed in prison: some were dubious about probation.
NOMS was seen as a vehicle for ever increasing central control, exercised by a bloated and remote HQ. Figures banded about for the size and cost of NOMS HQ did not distinguish between classic civil service 'policy' jobs, and work that was fully operational and without which prison service couldn't have operated. It was an own goal that NOMS never produced any clearer account. (Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with centralisation. The chaotic, anarchic nature of the prison service up to the mid 1990s, where key operating instructions were causally ignored locally, sometimes because impossible to comply with, and terrible things shappened as a result, cried out for greater central grip. These things tend to go in cycles in large, distributed organisations. )
If NOMS meant one big change, that would have been one thing – but the organisation was hacked about again and again.
Carter's notion of running prisons through both direct management and 'commissioning' – memorably described by Phil Wheatley as 'a plane that could never fly' – wasted years of constant reorganisation, trying to make this misconceived idea work, with the prison service separated out from NOMS as 'just another provider', before it was dropped in favour of plain ordinary line management. This constant shifting around – some units moved several times between the prison service, now deemed to be merely another provider, and the centre of NOMS – alienated many career civil servants in HQ.
Probation suffered from an especially bad case of what might be called 'Compulsive Re-organisation Syndrome' or CRS. First turned into the National Probation Service in the early 1990s, then into statutory Probation Trusts in the late 2000s, shortly before being broken up and part-privatised, part-centralised in the mid 2010s. Good people were exhausted, alienated or jettisoned along the way. What they must feel like now - as Government tells the prison service that empowering front line staff and freeing them from central control is - of course! - the way to improve services, and as the CRC contracts look more and more troubled. There is so much talk of accountability, yet no Minister is ever held to account for their botched or unnecessary re-organisations.
It can be said against NOMS that despite these massive re-organisations, it missed opportunities for getting real benefit from them. Prison and probation, far from being brought together, were cemented further into their silos. For example, there wasn't even an experiment in letting prison and probation services in an area as a single contract . Each prison and probation board or trust in an area continued to run their own offender programmes for the same bunch of offenders, instead of running a single programme across institutional borders.
And yet....it worked
And yet, for all that, the decade of NOMS invention was, looking back, a good one for both services – better than what went before , and certainly much better than what has come after.
The prisons system had been in a scandalous state for decades, right up to the turn of the century. But in the 2000s, with the introduction of effective management, a new generation of management minded governors, and substantial money for new offender programmes, there was steady improvement towards much more consistent performance (2). By 2010, the prison service was in a better state, despite continuing high over-crowding, than it had been in living memory.
Under the Prison Rating System, in 2010-11 no prison rated in the lowest category (cause for serious concern) and few in the next one up (cause of concern). Compare that with the turn of the century: a serious riot at Lincoln (2002), institutionalised beating in the Scrubs Seg, institutionalised racism at Brixton and many other prisons, the gruesome murder of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham, the near total collapse of Ashfield and Rye Hill! Or compare with 2015-16, when the PRS rated no fewer than 6 prisons as causing serious concern an a full quarter of the system rated as causing concern, and major riots at three prisons.
Comparisons with probation's pre-NOMS performance is more difficult. Ironically, although prisons are often described as a 'hidden world', the media, and public, know what a 'bad ' prison looks like and excesses in prisons are (nowadays) pretty quickly made public. But 'failure', in probation, is not so easily recognised.
What one can is that far from being robbed of resources to pay the prison service, probation did very well in the 2000s.
Graph 1: probation resources 2001-08
(from Garside, R. and Groombridge, N., 2008 (3))
In fact, a study of resourcing of various criminal justice agencies in this period concludes that "probation appears to have been the main winner" (Garside, R. and Groombridge, N., 2008), ahead of police, prisons and courts.
In the same decade there were many important advances in the way probation worked: the offender management model itself, which had faults to be sure, but some virtues, better methodologies for offender risk assessment, so crucial to probation (Oasys, VISOR), better inter agency working (MAPPA). And in terms of achievement one can point to the NOMS ratings report for 2010-2011, which found every single probation trust to be giving 'good' or 'exceptional' performance. One can also point to the extremely low rate of serious re-offending by the 50, 000 or so high risk offenders supervised under MAPPA every year; in 2010-11, 'only' 134 were charged with such an offence, and not all convicted, though of course it wil be said that that is 134 too many (4).
...success in cutting re-offending
Many now say that the best, or indeed only, measure of the success of prisons and probation is the reconviction rate. I've expressed doubt about that in my last article here. But if that's what you think, have a look here, and then tell me why you still think NOMS in the 2000s was a disaster:
Graph 2: success in cutting re-offending 2001-2011
(Source: NOMS proven reoffending tables, 2010-11)
Granted it looks like a small reduction, but in fact it is as much as, if not more than, the criminological evidence suggests should be achievable, across the whole offender population. It amounts to many tens of thousands of crimes avoided. What's not to like?
(Indeed, it is very interesting to me that however often attention is drawn to this clear evidence of reduced reoffending, all you hear from politicians, pressure groups and criminologists is that reoffending rates have not come down. I am beginning to suspect that if there is one thing we really cannot handle, cannot accept, it is good news that conflicts with our deep belief that x or y is dreadful. We would much rather, it appears, that x or y continued to be dreadful, or at least seem so, than that we had to admit our prejudices are incorrect. One sees this in florid form in respect of many achievements of the Labour Government, where Labour supporters are far more insistent that nothing good was accomplished than the Tories are. It's a form of reputational self-harm. Because they weren't the right - or Left - sort of Labour Government, you see, so they just can't have achieved anything.)
I have talked of NOMS' success only in the 2000s. Of course, it was all downhill from around 2013. But one can hardly blame NOMS for that. Whatever the organisational structure, the cuts would have just as been severe, even more so because made without any attempt to manage them, and the mania for privatisation would still have struck. Indeed, NOMS became in a sense the victim of its own success: in a previous generation, the speed with which Grayling made succession of massive changes in prisons and probation would have been simply impossible. NOMS' greater managerial grip lent itself to Grayling's lust for successive massive, unargued, unevidenced, hasty re-organisations.
NOMS was the ugly, unwanted child who was a quiet success. But none of us can bear to admit it.
So much for history. The question now of course is why Liz Truss has abolished it, why she has chosen to make the changes she has and what the chances are of them succeeding. I shall return to that question.
(1) 'Managing offenders, reducing crime ' (2003)
(2) It is de rigueur for criminologists decry 'the new public management' of the late 1990s: what species of management do they think existed in the early 1990s, when the prison service was a basket case? What kind of managerialism would be more acceptable to them?
(3) Garside, R. and Groombridge, N., 'Criminal justice resources, staffing and workloads' (2008)
(4) MAPPA annual report 2010-11, statistical tables
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I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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