Opening the door to a better life: how government agencies are working together to reduce reoffending

Like many complex issues, reducing reoffending is a challenge that can get caught in the web of organisational boundaries. But with focused, collaborative work, positive change can happen. Jess Bowie speaks to officials working together through the Reducing Reoffending Board and finds out how they build common goals, line up their budgets – and why they still value their own departments
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By Jess Bowie

02 Nov 2022

Reducing the number of prisoners who continue to commit crimes after their sentence ends is not just a social issue: the latest Ministry of Justice research shows reoffending costs the economy £18bn a year. Government after government has pledged to tackle this issue but it is a classic “wicked problem” – complex, multi-faceted and cutting across many departmental remits.

That’s not to say officials have thrown their hands up: recently cooperation between departments has become more formalised, including the creation of the cross-government Reducing Reoffending Board in 2020. This official-level board was established to work under the Crime and Justice Taskforce – a cabinet committee created by Boris Johnson in 2020 with reducing reoffending as one of its priorities. 

The CJTF also led to other collaborative initiatives, including multi-department “policy sprints”, and the Prison Leavers Project, a Ministry of Justice-led scheme set up under the Shared Outcomes Fund to drive collaboration across not just government but all sectors to find new ways of helping prison leavers.

CSW brought together a number of officials working together on these initiatives, to find out more about this joint working and the lessons it might have for other cross-cutting policy work.

What are the key elements of reducing reoffending?

Adam Bailey, deputy director, prisoner outcomes, resettlement and reoffending, Ministry of Justice: The thing that makes reducing reoffending so vital an issue but also, from a personal perspective, such an interesting one to think about is that it’s just so multi-dimensional. 

The key strands range from things that we in the MoJ and HMPPS do – so thinking about probation and probation reform and how we better supervise prison leavers and people on community sentences – through to the other factors that drive people to reoffend, such as substance misuse, lack of accommodation and unemployment. 

And of course tackling these issues also requires not just a cross-departmental effort, but also support from people who aren’t in government at all – like employers, to offer prison leavers jobs, and private rented sector landlords or local authorities, to provide accommodation. 

A really high number of those receiving cautions or convictions have offended before – around 80%. So the other strand of reoffending is: if we get it right, there is an opportunity for someone to really turn their life around. And the prospect of changing people’s lives for the better is something that inspires and motivates all of us.

What was the situation when you all began working together and how did the more formalised joint working start?

AB: There had been a lot of important work prior to 2020, such as the creation of the New Futures Network, HMPPS’s in-house employment broker, which developed partnerships between prisons and employers to help prison leavers find jobs.

When the Crime and Justice Task Force was established, ministers focused on three areas where the evidence suggests you can have a real impact on reoffending: accommodation on release from prison; employment on release from prison; and substance misuse treatment. The logic being that if you can get these three elements right, you set someone up for a really good re-entry into society. 

In that early period we ran a series of what we called “policy sprints”. These brought the MoJ and HMPPS together with other government departments, operational bodies and third-sector organisations to talk about the three priorities, and try to understand the problems that existed. And as ever, the hardest bit was: how do we solve them? And it was that work in early 2020 that set us up for this new phase. 

Two other things happened. One was the establishment of a senior-official-level Reducing Reoffending Board, which included people from the government departments whose ministers also attended the CJTF, and others from further afield. That group was responsible for driving progress. The other thing was The Prison Leavers Project, which was set up to think about innovative ways of solving reoffending. 

Helen Walker, deputy director, disadvantaged groups, Department for Work and Pensions: Yes, we’d already been trying to work together but when the taskforce came along, that gave us that very senior level political commitment and also a really clear focus on the three big ticket things that we need to work on. 

Before the CJTF, evidence was showing that things falling down on an offender’s journey either lay with one department or another, or actually in the handoffs between departments. Now, though, we’re able to look at it all quite holistically. So we’re no longer looking at accommodation or employment or substance abuse in isolation. We’re recognising that these things all have to come together and that we have to bring everybody together, including people with lived experience, in the same room, at the same time. 

Caragh Arthur, lived experience lead, now policy team, MoJ: Helen mentions lived experience: one of the things the approach did was to ensure that lots of people with lived experience were recruited, particularly into what are called crime diversion roles. I think that’s made a real difference, because, while we all know that offering somebody employment is likely to pull them away from a life of crime, some of the jobs that are on offer aren’t paid very highly, particularly compared to what people might have been earning through illicit work, like selling drugs. 

Employment opportunities, on the face of it, can sometimes not be that attractive to prison leavers. What’s so useful about people with lived experience who are leading some of this work on the ground is, when they’re going into speak to somebody about employment and the ways they can transform their life, they’re able to say: “Okay, you sell drugs, and you might have earnt five grand over the course of a week or two weeks. But when we break that down, and you’re sat up for 24 hours in a drug den, at risk of somebody kicking off the door and shooting you to rob you for your drugs, actually, it’s danger money. Is it really worth it? And, you know, it’s not really your money because the police can also take it off you, and then you go to prison.” 

Somebody with lived experience can say: “I started off on a low salary too. But getting a job taught me how to build my character, and how to communicate with mainstream members of society.” And you can help people realise: “I can prosper here. It may take a bit longer to get from A to B. But once I do, the money’s mine, I’m not going to be shot, I’m not going to be arrested.” And it helps people to make better decisions.

How do the nuts and bolts of this collaboration work, to stop people slipping through the cracks? Do you have shared budgets?

Matt Grey, executive director, reducing reoffending, partnerships and accommodation, HM Prison and Probation Service: Others have talked about how the CJTF galvanised departments around a set of actions. But it also challenged us to set some really ambitious objectives to deliver a step change in the outcomes that we see over time. It’s been really helpful to have that because it’s changed the concept of reducing reoffending from being a MoJ and HMPPS objective to being something that the government needs to get behind. 

The Reducing Reoffending Board Adam mentioned is critical for us because it’s making sure we have a single group that comes together and is really clear on priorities. That group meets monthly, and beyond that, there’s still a lot of bilateral engagement where we need it: so there are specific policies we try to take forward with DWP, with DHSC, with DfE and so on. 

Even within the three strands of accommodation, substance use and employment you need different departments to work together. Employment, for example, is a cross-cutting issue. So there’s all sorts of engagement that happens at senior level, at team level but also, crucially, on the front line. 

And actually we all recognise reducing reoffending is not just the job of Whitehall civil servants. The joint working that happens right on the front line is absolutely crucial: it’s people in prisons working with DWP job coaches, with health and justice specialists provided by DHSC, the NHS and local health providers. It’s engagement by Probation with the police and crime commissioners and local police forces, with housing providers, and indeed local schools – there are some amazing examples of collaboration there, too.

There are a couple of areas where we share budgets, but on the whole what has been helpful with the CJTF is not necessarily the pooling of budgets, but better budgetary alignment. For example, there are things that we do in the MoJ and HMPPS that we know we need the Department for Levelling Up to work on too, to get people into settled accommodation. And that’s created a far better understanding of the totality of how the money flows and how it all adds up to become greater than the sum of its parts. 

AB: Part of what prompts the shared working is because it helps deliver a lot of different departments’ objectives simultaneously. So from my MoJ perspective, employment can help reduce reoffending; from Helen’s perspective, prison leavers who secure employment have the best chance of progressing and delivering on DWP’s objectives. So whilst we don’t necessarily have shared budgets, we’ve got a complementary approach that respects the various departmental boundaries.

HW: There is also a very collegial approach to the bidding process. One example is when there was an expansion in the number of prisons: we bid for additional prison work coaches to match. It was us bidding for that pot of money, but in conjunction with what Adam and colleagues were doing. 
Another really significant example was the Drugs Strategy, and how everybody came together to make a bid for money for treatment and recovery, which was over £700m. That was all given to DH, but was then parcelled out to the departments to run their particular bits. 

Caroline Allnutt, deputy director, mental health legislation and justice, Department of Health and Social Care: From a health perspective, we’ve hugely valued a positive working relationship with our colleagues in MoJ and other departments. The reducing reoffending agenda has really added impetus to our objectives to improve health outcomes for particularly vulnerable groups. 

To be frank, when you’re bidding for health spending, the context has been increasingly tough over recent years, and, while there’s always a clear motivation of “let’s do the right thing for vulnerable groups”, being able to show how this will contribute to the wider government agenda and save on big societal costs is incredibly helpful. 

Evidence suggests that 45% of prisoners suffer from anxiety and depression, and many suffer from more serious forms of mental illness. Over half of people in prison are being treated for an addiction. We would want to be addressing this anyway. But obviously, having clear evidence which demonstrates that connecting prison leavers into the health services that they need to maintain recovery has a big impact on reducing reoffending has been really helpful.

Our areas of focus are very much around diverting people into health services when they come into contact with the criminal justice system. So liaison and diversion services, which either can support people if they do end up going to court and through into prison, or, if they don’t need to get that far, services which divert them into things like community sentence treatment requirements instead of prison. 

"I wouldn’t say 'we’ve cracked it', nor would I underestimate the challenges. On different budgets, I think it’s amazing that we’re able to work together and be transparent about bids and the investment case. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty of spending reviews, it’s tough to make that case" 

I definitely wouldn’t say “we’ve cracked it”, nor would I underestimate the very real challenges. On different budgets, I think it’s amazing that we’re able to work together and be very transparent about bids and the investment case. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty of spending reviews, it’s always quite tough to make that case. 

As Matt was saying, there’s a lot we need to do in Whitehall to set the overall agenda, but it also hugely depends on effective working relationships between frontline agencies. And sometimes that can be a cultural challenge as much as anything. The goodwill is there but organisations operate in quite different ways. 

That said, there’s been huge progress since I’ve been in this role at cementing and improving those relationships. The pandemic actually was a huge catalyst for doing that. It’s amazing how people pull together in a crisis. 

Do you ever wish there was a single department for reducing reoffending?

MG: I think we’ve really shown through the reducing reoffending agenda that operating in different departments hasn’t stopped us delivering some great outcomes. Do I think that you could take my team, Adam’s team, Helen’s team, Caroline’s team and many other teams, put us all in the same building and make improvements? Not necessarily. Because actually our success relies on us being able to face back off to our own departments and make the case and support each other. 

I know, because we’ve sat in meetings, that Helen has to go and fight the good fight with her department, and Caroline has to do the same. And we’ve been there to provide support and insight and collaboration as needed, and ensure ministers across government get consistently good advice. So I don’t think departmental barriers have really been too much of an impediment in that space. It’s the same on the front line of reducing reoffending: I don’t think departmental boundaries affect them either.

HW: From my perspective, it is useful being located in a huge department like DWP, which, like Health, serves pretty much everybody in the population in some way. If I were in a niche group outside my own department, my ability to advocate for what is actually quite a small group within DWP would be hampered rather than helped. It’s also useful coming back into the cross-government group and reminding them that actually, whole great swathes of DWP policy on how we pay welfare can’t simply change because it’s not exactly working for offenders. So it’s finding workarounds and ways through to make it work for all. So I think it is much better, in many ways, this way round.

CA (DHSC): Helen makes a really good point: it’s so helpful being the advocate within a department and understanding the way both your department and the wider system work.  

What are some of the barriers and frustrations you encounter and what are the lessons for other departments looking to collaborate? 

HW: One of my biggest frustrations is data. The lack of data to build your evidence base. Working with so many organisations, on the frontline and departmentally, data sharing is always complex. Building our evidence base is something that we should continue to prioritise. We’ve done huge amounts on that front over the last few years, but there is always more we can do. 

In terms of tips for other officials hoping to collaborate like us: be transparent with each other about what you can do and what you can’t do. And also be a bit pushy with each other. If someone says they can’t do something, push a little bit.

CA (DHSC): I would add: try to remember the context of other departments, and that the thing you’re working on only forms one bit of ministers’ workloads on any given day. So just make it really easy for each other to articulate the value of the work and why ministers should engage. 

MG: There is never enough evidence for what you want to do, so identify what evidence you need and work together to get it. Some conditions for success: find a common cause and sense of shared objectives. Be open to innovation – and to do that, you really must involve the front line. They are the experts at tackling the problems, and will have the best solutions.

CA (MoJ): One frustration for me is the vetting process for ex-offenders who could be getting jobs in the government supply chain – like lorry drivers, or people in the construction industry that have been in prison, who could be involved with building new prisons. The vetting process is too slow, and whilst some progress has been made, sometimes the computer says no without assessing the individual’s rehabilitative progress, giving an inaccurate reflection of the risk. I’d also like to see more help for people with lived experience to become civil servants in policy roles (I believe senior managers are working on this). I think there’s an assumption that someone like me, who’s 20 years out of prison, could have just competed and got a job in the civil service without the various schemes that have been introduced. And that simply isn’t true. If I had competed under normal circumstances, I would never have made it into the civil service.

AB: There is a barrier around time. Government is busy, and there is a lot to get done, and sometimes the really innovative ideas can take longer to think through and iterate. In January 2021 we got £50m to test, iterate and embed a lot of the reducing reoffending ideas we’re now implementing. And it’s working really well. Of course we are all ambitious to move quickly and fix things, but having that time to do it properly is vital. 

Finally, being open to ideas from everywhere – the frontline, those like Caragh with lived experience, the third sector. Sometimes you also have to challenge yourself about what you’re doing, and sometimes you have to compromise to accommodate what other government departments are doing. 

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