The dangers of payment-by-results in probation

Grayling's reforms show the coalition hasn't learned from the failure of the Work Programme.

Today the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, set out the coalition’s latest payment-by-results (PBR) scheme. Originally developed as a way of contracting out back-to-work employment services, this public services version of ‘no win, no fee’ is going to be extended to the probation service in an attempt to bring down reoffending.

The idea is simple – services once delivered by the state are contracted out to private and voluntary sector providers, but a big chunk of these providers’ fees are only paid if they achieve certain outcomes. So in the Work Programme around 80 per cent of the fee is paid only once an unemployed person has been supported into a sustainable job. In the probation service, the measure of success will be reoffending rates. The state only shells out if private companies do what they promise. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer is, unfortunately, quite a lot, as the Work Programme has shown a couple of years into the original contracts. And none of the lessons it’s thrown up seem to have been taken on board.

First, PBR is essentially a way of the state contracting out risk and uncertainty. In order to come up with the right price tag, the state needs to be able to price that risk. The problem comes when public commissioners have no idea about levels of risk involved in what they’re commissioning – and when contractors themselves have no control over some of the biggest risks like the state of the economy in the Work Programme. This is one reason why Work Programme contractors are likely to find themselves in difficulties – the original contracts built in overly optimistic assumptions about the labour market. So the contracts are too stretching and if they are stuck to, the government in effect will be underpaying for services given the economic backdrop.

Does it really matter? Surely underpayment is no skin off the state’s nose. But this is far too simplistic. There’s too much at stake with unemployment – the Work Programme providers really are too big to fail, which some of them may do if they fail to meet outcomes set out in their contracts. That’s arguably even more true in the case of probation services, where public safety is at stake. This implicit guarantee at least partially erodes the point of PBR as a risk transfer mechanism. And it muddies accountability. If the economy’s doing worse than expected – which affects reoffending as well as unemployment – who’s responsible for contractors not meeting their outcomes?

Second is the impact of payment-by-results on the voluntary sector. These PBR contracts couldn’t be more distant from the notions of "big society" or devolution – the proposals for the probation scheme are for just a handful of contracts covering huge swathes of the country. Only large private companies are able to absorb the risks involved in going for a contract of this size, which is why it is the Sercos and A4Es of this world delivering the Work Programme rather than even the largest charities involved in welfare to work. The idea is that these big contractors subcontract to the voluntary sector. Yet the Work Programme contracts have been structured in such a way that private providers can cream off the ‘safe’ payment not linked to outcomes and pass on more – not less – risk to the small voluntary organisations with whom they subcontract. The result is that far from building up voluntary sector capacity, PBR risks squeezing it at the expense of big companies. No wonder the sector is outraged.

The third fundamental problem with PBR is that it discourages knowledge-sharing of what works – whether that’s getting people back into work, improving kids’ reading or reducing reoffending. Initial data on the Work Programme shows there is big variance in the performance of different companies. What are some doing that’s more effective than others? This is a question of huge public interest. Yet PBR means that companies – far from sharing best practice across the public sector – have a commercial interest in protecting their recipes for success. This is one example of where there is a real tension between the profit motive and public interest, and it needs to be managed.

None of this to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with private sector delivery of public services. Of course the public sector could stand to gain from intelligently incorporating some learning from the private sector if it’s done in the right way. But it’s just as ridiculous to say the private sector is always better at delivering public services than it is to say it’s always worse.

Unfortunately, the state has a history of making some pretty bad deals with the private sector – from PFI deals gone wrong to the public-private venture capital funds that lost huge amounts of money in the 1990s and 2000s. All of these examples highlight the importance of getting the relationship - and, crucially, the contract that structures that relationship – between the public and private sector right. But unfortunately for those who adopt a ‘private sector good, public sector bad’ mantra, that’s probably trickier to do than delivering efficient services in the first place. It’s a great shame the coalition shows no indication of learning the lessons from the Work Programme – and it means there’s a real risk PBR ends up being the PFI story of the 2010s.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sonia Sodha is head of policy and strategy at the Social Research Unit and a former senior policy adviser to Ed Miliband. She tweets @soniasodha.

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Theresa May wants a Global Britain? Then stay in the single market

The entrepreneur Lord Bilimoria argues the Prime Minister risks both the prosperity and reputation of the UK. 

Since coming to the UK as a student in the early 1980s, I have witnessed the shattering of its glass ceiling and the birth of one of the world’s most enterprising nations. Much of this progress is now under threat due to the great uncertainty Brexit is causing.

It has been six months since the referendum, and we are still presented with no clear strategy except a blind leap of faith out of the single market. By continuing to pursue a closed and inward-looking Brexit, Theresa May risks both the prosperity and reputation of this country. 

Last week I joined with thirty other entrepreneurs and business leaders in urging the Prime Minister to keep Britain within the EU single market. In the coming months Mrs May will face having to make a trade-off between immigration control and loss of single market access. The decision she makes will determine whether we retain much of our economic strength. 

That is why I was disappointed to see May’s most recent comments simply reinforcing the message that the government is pursuing a "hard" Brexit. Over the weekend her big interview sent the pound plunging – yet again. 

It is clear the government is solely focused on delivering stricter immigration regulation, regardless of whether it leaves Britain stranded outside the single market. To fall into the trap of calling the PM "Theresa Maybe" masks the decisive nature of her emerging strategy – which is to head for the hardest of exits.

We know that neither Council President Donald Tusk nor chief negotiator Michel Barnier will accept access to the single market without freedom of movement being part of the deal. This is incompatible with the vision set out by the government.

Yet, movement and access to the single market are vital to the future interests of British business. The PM must do more to reassure those set to be affected. We are currently part of a 500m-strong single market; this is good for British business. Although I believe the whole of Europe needs to reform the current free movement of people, not least for security reasons, we nevertheless must continue to have the ability to move freely within the EU for tourism, business and work.

It is becoming unequivocally clear that the PM is willing to pay any economic price to achieve stricter immigration controls for political gain. Driven by the fear that the far-right will use immigration in future election battlegrounds, the issue of immigration is undermining our ability to negotiate an exit from the EU that is in the best interest of businesses and the nation as a whole. 

The government’s infuriating failure to prioritise continued movement of people means we are set to lose a hugely competitive edge, reducing access to talented employees, and undermining the UK’s rich history of an open, diverse, and welcoming nation.  

To achieve the government’s absurd immigration control, we will have to leave the European single market. In doing so 44 per cent of our exports, the current percentage that go to Europe, will be jeopardised, as they will no longer have free access to their original markets. 

In tandem with an exit from the world’s largest single market, British business will also lose access to one of the strongest international talent pools. This has the potential to be even more devastating than the forfeiture of markets and trade.

Access to skilled workers is critical to future success. As a nation we have the lowest level of unemployment in living memory with less than 5 per cent currently out of work, and that’s in spite of 3.6m people from the EU working in Britain.

Britain will continue to need the expertise that free movement currently provides, regardless of whether Brexit happens or not. You cannot simply replace the skilled doctors, nurses or teachers living and working here overnight. 

The focus on immigration has also strayed into more dangerous territory with the government persisting in including international students as immigrants when calculating net migration figures, whilst having a target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. The PM’s insistence on this policy not only stifles encouragement of talent flows, but also sends an incredibly negative message to the international community. It is a policy that I have continually called on the PM to change and I will continue to do so.

Our competitor countries, the United States, Canada, and Australia, do not categorise international students as immigrants and, in fact, they also provide generous incentives to stay in their countries to work after graduating. In comparison, we removed our popular two year post-study work visa in 2012.

Brexit poses an increasingly dangerous reality that we are destined to be viewed as an inward-looking, insular and intolerant nation. That is not the Britain I know and love. That is not the Britain that has attracted enterprising individuals. The UK needs to establish itself once more as an outward-facing nation that welcomes international talent and entrepreneurship. This starts with retaining membership of the single market.  

Lord Karan Bilimoria is a leading British businessman and the founder of Cobra Beer.