NPC's James Noble explores the challenges of voluntary organisations measuring their imact and introduces the Justice Data Lab.
The Justice Data Lab is a rare opportunity to get data on the impact of interventions on reoffending
From a distance, a hill might not seem too difficult to climb. Similarly, it is very easy to suggest to voluntary organisations that they should ‘measure their impact’, but when you get up-close you appreciate how hard this is.
There are two big challenges: impact itself takes time, so you need to stay in touch with people to measure it; and impact is caused by many things, so you need a way to determine your own contribution. Addressing these requires expertise and resources rarely available to the sector. So most of our effort goes on finding other routes that might take us half-way there; like measuring short-term outcomes, perceptions of impact, qualitative research and so on.
The government could help by allowing charities to have access to official data about the outcomes their service users achieve. But this raises an obvious privacy issue in giving this level of access to people’s health, education and police records.
The Justice Data Lab —suggested by NPC and run by the Ministry of Justice since 2013—is an elegant solution to this problem. It lets charities that have worked with people who have offended analyse aggregate reconviction rates of their service users compared to a statistically derived control group without compromising anyone’s privacy. It is the first service of its kind in the world, and we see it as the first toe-hold in a mountain we’ve been clambering at the bottom of for a long time. And best of all, it is completely free for organisations to use, providing they meet certain criteria.
The benefits of the Justice Data Lab are not just restricted to those organisations that use it. Rather it exists to help us all learn about what is effective in reducing reoffending. So far most interventions tested through the Justice Data Lab have been associated with a decrease in reoffending (although because of the rules of statistics only a subset of these are deemed ‘significant’).
We have also seen evidence of higher success rates for voluntary organisations than for private and public organisations. But unfortunately we can’t shout about this because not enough voluntary organisations have used the Justice Data Lab yet. If more of us used it, the voluntary sector might be able to make a stronger case for its contribution as a whole.
NPC has been puzzled by the fact more voluntary sector organisations haven’t used this fantastic resource. Over the last few months we have been talking to organisations that haven’t taken up the offer yet. On the back of this we have produced this set of FAQs which address some of the common concerns and misconceptions. We are pleased that everyone we have spoken to has come round to our view of how valuable it is, and we are hoping that through this document more organisations will come on board. If you have any further questions feel free to drop me line.
NPC supports the Justice Data Lab on a pro bono basis because we are so enthusiastic about it. The truth is that voluntary organisations working in the criminal justice system in England are uniquely privileged to have access to this resource. There is nothing else quite like it in the world and it is time to take advantage.