PAC: probation service ICT is “inefficient, unreliable and hard to use”
Parliamentary spending watchdog critical of impact of poor ICT on transformation efforts; wants urgent improvement in usability of nDelius case management system used by NOMS
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned of the impact poor ICT systems have had on efforts by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to transform probation services.
In 2014, the PAC said it reported on the changes underway to probation services in England and Wales, outlining several risks and challenges. Now, two years on, it has warned that there is still no clear picture of how the new system is performing in important areas of the reforms.
In addition, the “failure to deal with ICT problems” coupled with “serious uncertainty over the impact on providers of lower than expected business volumes” have also undermined the pace of change, the parliamentary watchdog said.
In 2012, the MoJ said it would deliver a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ by reforming probation services.
Subsequently in June 2014, it split 35 probation trusts into a public sector National Probation Service (NPS) as well as 21 new community rehabilitation companies (CRCs). The NPS advises courts on sentencing all offenders and manages those individuals presenting higher risks of serious harm or with prior history of domestic violence and sexual offences, while CRCs supervise offenders presenting low- and medium-risk of harm.
The CRCs were in public ownership until February 2015 and then transferred to eight mainly private sector providers working under contract to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS).
However, the ability of the CRCs to transform their businesses is being undermined by delays in resolving commercial negotiations. The new owners of the CRCs were chosen on the basis that they would invest in and transform these businesses, with promised innovations including new “one-stop” service centres and the use of ICT systems to free up probation staff time to interact more effectively with offenders. But the transformation has been slower than expected due to difficulties connecting the CRCs to ICT systems within NOMS coupled with lower volumes of business than originally estimated.
The PAC went further in its criticism of probation service ICT systems, describing them as “inefficient, unreliable and hard to use.”
The report maintained that successful probation services depend on effective joint-working across various partners, supported by “well-functioning ICT systems”.
But it said, “Probation ICT systems have long been unfit for purpose, which hinders collaboration and frustrates staff who already work under pressure. We were told that the nDelius case management system used by NOMS had to be stripped back so it could be operated by CRCs and NPS regions nationwide as a single system. As a result, this reduced the usability of nDelius and NPS staff regularly raise ICT issues with senior leaders in NOMS.
“Improving nDelius is a priority for NOMS and is particularly important for the NPS who will continue to use the system for the foreseeable future.”
“Most CRCs are installing their own case management systems and ICT infrastructure to increase efficiency and productivity. For this to happen, CRCs needed the ministry to provide a “strategic partner gateway” to link NOMS and CRC systems. The ministry initially planned to deliver this gateway in the summer of 2015 but this was delayed by other priorities and subsequently by increased scope. Though the gateway is now in place, the delay has impacted some CRCs’ ability to transform their ICT systems at the pace they had planned. As a result, the ministry has had to pay a total of £23.1m to 17 CRCs.
The PAC concluded, “In a service that relies on successful joint working between multiple partners, it is essential that ICT supports, rather than frustrates, effective and efficient collaboration. This is far from the case for probation.
“Systems are still fragile and precarious, not least the ICT infrastructure and NOMS’ nDelius case management system, which puts added pressure on already hard pressed staff. The nDelius case management system had to be stripped back so it could be operated nationwide and improvements to its usability were deferred. There have also been delays in providing CRCs with a gateway into NOMS ICT systems.
“The ministry has paid £23m compensation to CRCs as a result. It is crucial that nDelius, the gateway and wider ICT systems are fully functional as soon as possible otherwise NOMS risk further demoralising essential staff and delaying planned service transformation.”
The PAC recommended that NOMS should “without delay” meet its commitments to improve the usability of nDelius and to implement a fully functional and reliable link between NOMS and CRC systems by the end of 2016.
PAC chair Meg Hillier said: "There is a real danger the Ministry of Justice has bitten off more than it can chew. It set out with some fervour a programme of reforms not just to rehabilitation but also to the courts and prison systems. Ambition is one thing but, as our committee continues to document across government, delivering positive results for taxpayers and society in general is quite another.
“Reintegrating offenders with the community is vitally important yet the quality of arrangements to support this is patchy. There is also a continued failure to provide hard-pressed probation staff with adequate computer systems. None of this paints a picture of probation working effectively towards the goal of reduced reoffending.
“The ministry must not allow other projects to distract it from the task at hand during what is a critical stage of rehabilitation reform and we urge it to act on the recommendations set out in our report."