Until Covid-19 came to consume our focus and resources, the government’s plans to conduct a reform of the probation service was at the forefront of many of our minds. While many charities’ attention has been focussed on responding to an unprecedented crisis, the government has been continuing its work to deliver a reformed probation model from next year, and we are now entering a crucial stage of the process.
The publication of the draft target operating model in early March set out in detail the latest plans for how the future probation system will work. Regional Probation Directors have been appointed and will have responsibility for the overall delivery and commissioning of probation services across 11 new probation areas; and contracts for Probation Delivery Partners, who will deliver unpaid work programmes, accredited programmes and some ‘structured interventions’, have been out to tender.
The focus is now on the Dynamic Framework - the mechanism to procure rehabilitation and resettlement interventions in each area. The Dynamic Framework is the main opportunity for voluntary organisations of all sizes to deliver services through the probation system and competition is due to launch soon. However, the Covid-19 pandemic presents challenges in terms of the government running this commissioning process, and for charities to engage in it.
The Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) has set up a Special Interest Group (SIG) on probation reform, and a meeting was recently convened to provide advice to officials from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) on how best to manage these issues. A summary of the meeting and the advice we submitted can be found here and the key points are set out below.
Since the SIG met, the government has published the first tranche of market engagement materials ahead of the framework opening in June 2020. In order to access the market engagement materials, organisations will need to pre-register their interest here. Clinks will publish a summary of these materials next week.
Voluntary sector capacity is stretched
Covid-19 has impacted on the capacity of much of the voluntary sector to engage in new commissioning processes at this time. Data from our recent survey shows 40% of organisations are either unable to, or are unsure whether they can, engage in new a commissioning process for future services at this time.
In the RR3 meeting, members of the group expressed a variety of situations within their own organisations. Someone from a small organisation said they were unable to write any bids as all central staff had been redeployed to the front line. A larger organisation expressed concerns over their capacity as they had furloughed their entire business development team. Other organisations had capacity to engage in a new commissioning process, but were concerned about their ability to build the partnerships they needed to submit strong bids.
Given this issue of capacity, voluntary organisations are cautious about the commissioning process for the Dynamic Framework.
The qualification process will soon launch
The commissioning process will run in two parts. The first part is qualification - where organisations can apply to be listed on the framework. This is due to run in June 2020.
MoJ and HMPPS have indicated that the qualification process for the Dynamic Framework will be short and simple, and members of the RR3 were largely assured that the sector would be able to engage in this. The qualification process will involve some basic questions about the organisations and the services it hopes to run, and two case studies of their work.
Members of the group said MoJ/HMPPS should however learn from the design of the education Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) qualification process, which although was simple, was difficult to navigate due to unclear guidance on how prison governors would assess submissions. They asked therefore for the MoJ/HMPPS probation reform team to ensure there is clear accompanying guidance on the qualification processes, including expectations around partnerships/consortia information, expectations of smaller organisations and how submissions will be assessed.
The call-off process
The second part of the process is call-off - where organisations who have successfully been listed on the framework can compete for contract lots to deliver day-one services. This was due to take place this summer.
Given the issues around capacity, officials at the meeting were receptive to the idea call-off should be delayed until voluntary organisations are ready to engage. Though members deemed a qualification process manageable under existing pressures, there is a great deal of uncertainty over voluntary organisations’ ability to participate in a call-off process.
We have asked that the voluntary sector have a meaningful say in any decision taken that the market is ready for call-off. ‘Market readiness’ in this context should not be defined as the ability for some of the sector to engage in call-off, but rather the point at which the sector more broadly in all its diversity is ready to bid, to ensure a fair and open process that secures the best possible services for service users.
The dilemma of delaying commissioning
The government is committed to launching the new probation model from June 2021 - meaning any delay to call-off creates pressures further down the system.
For example, pushing back call-off might create pressures to shorten the call-off process itself. Four weeks to respond to call-off should be the minimum time period being considered, and specifications and criteria will need to be published as far in advance as possible, to enable organisations to prepare their bids.
Any decision to delay call-off will also need to consider the challenge this would pose for mobilisation of services. It is probable that pushing back call-off would likely lead to a significantly shorter mobilisation period. This risks affecting the outcome of the call-off process itself, by giving a competitive advantage to large organisations who are likely to have the infrastructure and expertise to mobilise services quickly.
The group suggested ways in which MoJ/ HMPPS could mitigate the impact of shorter mobilisation periods and suggested that MoJ/HMPPS produce a plan to mitigate the impacts of shorter mobilisation periods - including how to plan for transition, support with recruitment and vetting and prioritise the order of lots for call-off - and invite feedback on the plan from the RR3.