Transforming Rehabilitation: the open data opportunities

Changes are being made to how people convicted of criminal offences are given help towards their rehabilitation. Some of these changes are going to mean that data, and in particular open government data, have an important role to play. In this post I’m going to outline three of these opportunities, all of which could be addressed by projects that participate in the Open Data Challenge Series?challenge:

How can an open data project create further evidence for what are effective interventions for rehabilitation?

The government’s Transforming Rehabilitation agenda proposes to extend rehabilitation services to a wider number of people. For example, from next year everybody?sentenced to fewer than 12 months in custody will receive supervision and rehabilitation. It also seeks to open up a market in the provision of rehabilitation services.

The voluntary, community, social enterprise and private sectors provide services already but the intention is that they will provide more of them and also that they will be able to decide how they provide these, based on their ability to prove their success.

This means there will be an element of payment by results in the new system and I believe there are opportunities for open data projects here.

New Philanthropy Capital produced a report last year which found that whereas 25% of charities say that they do not measure their work, this rises to nearly half when considering charities with an income of less than ?100,000. This indicates that a significant number of smaller charities, and by extrapolation, community and voluntary services, will need to develop both data and open data capacity if they want to win contracts under the new system.

Open data projects could build on the research done by the Nominet Trust on Open Data and Charities. This found that:

Apart from open data portals, it is likely that they [charities] will have to invest in the development?of light-weight standards to ensure harmonisation of their data infrastructures and better information sharing

There is an opportunity here for open data projects that help organisations in the VCS sector publish open data relating to their rehabilitation work.

Where organisations already have some data relating to their rehabilitation work they can use the newly released Justice Data Lab from the The Ministry of Justice. It’s aim is to help smaller organisations to understand how effective their services are by comparing them with matched control groups of similar offenders to the ones they have worked with.

It’s notable that the example report templates [pdf] that the Justice Data Lab produces look to be data driven. However, as yet there appears to be no data standard concommitant with that data. As well as helping to establish commercially viable open data projects, the Open Data Institute is also working with government to improve its open data provision. That includes advising on open data standards.

There is an opportunity here to use the Crime and Justice Series to connect with staff in the Home Office to help draft an open data standard for the Justice Data Lab.

Payment by results can create incentives for organisations to experiment with new and innovative ideas. It can also introduce perverse incentives that encourage people to cheat; to massage their figures to make themselves look better and to earn more money. Open data advocates often quote Louis Brandeis’ statement that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” an open data project could put this principle into practice.

There is an opportunity here for open data projects that increase transparency and inform the public about effective programmes for rehabilitation

From the above, there are at least two areas where open data projects could be entered for the Crime and Justice Open Data Challenge and another area where interested parties could (and indeed, should) be talking to government about the open data standards it will develop to support the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda.

I’ll be taking part in the Sheffield – Hack The City event this weekend. It is an excellent chance for people interested in starting open data projects that tackle this or other challenges in the Open Data Challenge Series. See you there.


  1. Hi, Simon,

    It’s great to see the ODI and Nesta supporting this event in Sheffield and I agree with you about the opportunities to make more use of data in criminal justice. I hope to be in Sheffield on Saturday to offer whatever help or advice I may. It would be good to catch up if we get the chance.

    You are right to highlight the opportunities, but it’s just as important, I think, to acknowledge the risks with “Transforming Rehabilitation”, which in reality is a euphemism for privatisation. The Ministry of Justice will out-source more work to big private companies, whose activities will not be open to scrutiny under current FOI commercial confidentiality exemptions. Transforming Rehabilitation is likely to result in less transparency about how taxes are spent in criminal justice.

    The Government blurb about Transforming Rehabilitation talks about an intention to engage a wider range of private and voluntary providers in delivering rehab services. This is misleading, unfair and probably cruel.

    All 35 public sector Probation Trusts work closely with all sorts of different partners, including public bodies, voluntary organisations and private providers. I work for the probation service in Birmingham. Part of my job is to analyse the reoffending rates of people engaging with our various partners, such as Anawim Women’s Centre in Balsall Heath. I have provided numerous reports over the years that show how successful or otherwise these different intervenions are at cutting crime.

    If asked by a curious journalist or member of the public under current FOI rules to release any internal reducing reoffending evidence we have, I would not hesitate to share these reports. I would love to see a small charity like Anawim rewarded under a Payment by Results scheme for their tireless and successful approach towards reducing the reoffending of the vulnerable women they help.

    But Chris Grayling has come from the DWP where his Work Programme was heavily criticised for freezing out smaller providers. The contract package areas indicated by the MoJ are similarly huge and only a very big company will have the clout to make a successful bid. These companies are G4S and Serco and others like them.

    The hope is they will win the contracts as “primes” (prime providers) and sub-contract to smaller service providers who can demonstrate their successful approaches to reducing reoffending.

    The Justice Data Lab is an MoJ initiative aimed at helping those smaller providers obtain the evidence they need to win these mini-contracts. Charities supply personal information about clients which is matched to an extract of the Police National Computer by the MoJ.

    As I understand it, the MoJ will publish final reports about the organisations and their ability to reduce reoffending and the organisations themselves will be obliged to publish the reports on their own websites. I’m not sure about open data standards, but there are some open data principles here at least.

    However, it is possible the whole thing is a red herring. It relies on the primes seeing a financial advantage in sub-contracting. The Payment-by-Results bonuses would have to be big enough to show a profit on investment and the primes would have to be almost certain they were going to see the necessary statistically significant reductions in reoffending to realise that profit.

    In my experience, successful interventions are not profitable. Achieving desistance from crime is not a case of getting someone to fill in a 20-minute questionnaire, or automating things. It requires long-term investment, dedication and resources and is therefore inherently a public sector role.

    Unfortunately, the MoJ looks hell-bent on this ambitious programme of privatisation (it’s not just probation, but court services and legal aid under threat, too). So I have three hopes for some sense from the MoJ in its design.

    I hope the MoJ writes contracts with the big primes that require them to work with voluntary agencies, otherwise more charities will go out of business after empty promises like happened in the Work Programme.

    I hope the MoJ extends its 12-month pilot of the Justice Data Lab and agrees to put more resource into really studying and understanding what drives reductions in crime and reoffending, because this is largely unexplored territory. (this is something you talk about in your ODI programme and in your blog, of course)

    And I hope the Government in general revisits the FOI requirements of big companies who hold multi-million pound contracts paid with taxpayers’ money. If it’s our money that is spent on reducing crime, we have a right to know how it’s being done. Big companies should not be allowed to discover useful evidence or practice that they (naturally) refuse to share on commercial grounds.

    Thanks for reading. Hopefully see you at the weekend.

  2. Hi Jason

    Good to see you the other weekend and my apologies for taking so long to reply to your comment.

    I think a lot of your concerns are valid and widely held. I’m personally not convinced by the arguments to place probation services outside the public sector. As you say, probation trusts already contract out to other providers of services and payment by results has a chequered history, particularly when less ethical organisations and people seek to game the systems in place.

    Like you I’m concerned with the way that we may lose accountability and scrutiny when public services are contracted out/privatised. As an example, in Birmingham the city has created Service Birmingham, which is a joint venture with Capita, to deliver its IT Services. As far as I know it has refused to respond to all FOI requests made of it to date.

    The recent Shakespeare Review commented that, looking to a future where digital services were created around public data, “Britain enjoys significant advantages: the size and coherence of our public sector (who else has critically important data of the range and depth of the NHS?) combined with government?s strong commitment to a visionary open data policy”. That’s going to be fundamentally broken if we don’t insist on FOI and open data responsibilities being extended to all providers of publicly funded services.

    Your point about the Justice Data Lab is an interesting one. My interpretation of it is that the additional amount of effort made (and money spent) to make a difference to people’s lives enough so they desist from reoffending is never going to be profitable.

    My thoughts have been that the comparisons that people get back from the Justice Data Lab may well tell them how successful (or not) they are with people they work with compared with a comparable cohort of people they haven’t worked with.

    So, it could tell them they are doing something right (or not), but not what it is they are doing right. Those organisation will have a decent idea themselves, and often this will be strongly attached to their ethos.

    There is a danger that a prime contractor could try and strip down the elements of a relatively successful organisation and replicate it, cheaply, across its area. I’d imagine that it will be difficult to make that work.

    Once again, thanks for your comments and hopefully see you soon. Oh, and don’t be too surprised to see an FOI request come along quite soon….

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