By Suzannah.Brecknell

17 Nov 2010

It’s Jonathan Slater’s job to transform the justice system. He tells Suzannah Brecknell about the unprecedented approach he’s taking to encouraging preventative interventions, payment by results and voluntary sector delivery.


Jonathan Slater (pictured above) is an unassuming revolutionary. Measured in his speech and quiet in his enthusiasm, he is nonetheless a man with many passions. Devolution of power; sharing of resources and expertise; early intervention and preventative investment – all receive his gentle approval as we discuss Transforming Justice, the Ministry of Justice team he has led since it was set up last year by the previous government.

The team is working on long-term policy development as well as organisational reform, and spent its first year developing policy options around – for example – legal aid reform and the use of mediation to keep disputes out of courts, ready for ministers to consider after the general election. It also began to look at non-political changes such as shared services or estates management. Since the election, says Salter, the scale of the financial challenge facing the department has become clear and the Transforming Justice portfolio has been expanded to include all administrative and efficiency savings, which were previously under a different programme: “It now represents the totality of all the big changes we’re having to make to live with 23 per cent less money”.

Given the breadth of this challenge, it’s no wonder that Slater is advocating a broad range of tools to achieve it. Within this toolkit, payment by results is likely to feature heavily. It is a mechanism which can encourage innovation – by shifting the government’s focus from processes to results – and, in the case of the justice system, could help to deliver preventative investments to reduce offending or reoffending.

Encouraging the use of payment by results will be a key theme in an MoJ green paper on the ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’, to be published next month, and is the basis of the department’s innovative project to reduce reoffending among prisoners serving short-term sentences, which began in August.

This project ticks another coalition box, as it involves ‘Big Society’ partners in the form of charity St Giles’ Trust and other not-for-profit organisations. They will be providing mentoring and rehabilitation support to the next 3,000 prisoners serving short-term sentences in Peterborough prison.

The scheme has sidestepped the challenges presented by payment by results for charitable organisations, many of which lack the resources to fund capital investments and running costs until the payments begin to flow. The contract to deliver the reduction in reoffending has not been signed with the charities, but with a social investment fund – Social Finance – which raised capital from private investors on the back of that contract.

The fund has raised £5m from rich individuals and charitable foundations investing in ‘social impact bonds’. This money will pay charities upfront to deliver the programme. Social Finance will only be paid – and investors will only receive a return on their money – if, following the charities’ interventions, re-offending rates drop among this cohort. If re-offending drops by 7.5 per cent, investors will receive their capital back; if it falls by more, investors will earn a return on their money – and the return rises as reoffending rates drop further.

By gearing payments according to results on a linear scale, rather than using a simple success threshold, the contract aims to incentivise investors to keep improving rather than hitting a target and then simply maintaining that work. Although Social Finance’s delivery partners are paid upfront for the costs of delivering services, they work under performance-related bonus systems to encourage continued improvement and collaboration.

This project is the first of its kind, according to the government, and has received international attention. Slater reports with some excitement that he has taken part in phone and video conferences with “people from the White House” who wanted to know more about the scheme.

The project was set up quickly, given its ground-breaking nature. This was in part because the team decided to run a small-scale project, rather than a larger-scale ‘pilot’. Having worked hard to engage staff across the MoJ and its agencies around the idea of transformation, Slater recognised it was important to get practical projects going quickly, to give people “something to latch onto” and build momentum.

Another factor in the quick delivery, says Slater, was that he could draw on expertise and preparatory work from the partner organisations. Also, he had some experience in “contracting out something for the first time ever”, having helped to outsource education services while at Islington council. That experience taught him, he says, “the importance of getting the specification right, the contracting terms right”.

Developing a very clear success measure for the contract was particularly important, he says. “How could you demonstrate that a reduction in re-offending was as a result of the activities of the consortium rather than for any other reason? We had to spend quite a bit of time working on that payment mechanism. We’ve come up with something that compares the re-offending rates of people leaving Peterborough prison with the re-offending rates of a very similar population leaving other comparable prisons. That took quite a bit of time to work through.”

There also needed to be “sufficient independence in the measurements system that the consortium could be confident that we wouldn’t play about with the numbers to reduce their payment”; and mechanisms to cap payments if providers were to do extremely well, while still leaving enough incentive for the contractors to continue improving services.

Next month’s green paper will consult on the wider use of the payment by results approach in the justice system. Slater gives as an example the MoJ’s work with councils in Manchester and London; this is exploring how local authorities, working with probation services, could receive a percentage of the savings if their activities with children and young people result in reduced workload for the criminal justice system. “That’s an equivalent of the social impact bond,” says Slater, “but it’s not just a mechanism to get funding into prevention rather than cure. It’s also a mechanism designed to encourage innovation and new ways of doing things.”

The idea of giving more power to those at the front line fits well with the coalition’s drive for devolution, but also chimes with Slater’s background in local government. “I spent plenty of time looking up at Whitehall and wondering if I might be given a bit more room to manoeuvre,” he says. Devolution in various forms is another of the tools which Slater advocates; it crops up in many of the change programmes he describes as part of Transforming Justice. He even suggests that plans to develop alternative models of dispute resolution can be seen as “the ultimate model of devolution, in which we’re supporting individuals to work out the best way of resolving their disputes rather than using a court”.

The Transforming Justice programme is being evaluated in real time by the Institute for Government (IfG), which published its first report on the programme in May, describing it as “ambitious” and progress so far as “significant”.

The team, said the report, has fostered a “sense of urgency in the department about the need for change, with the leadership unanimously recognising the case for transformation”; it has built a leadership team “comprising influential senior staff from across the department’s previously disparate business groups”; it’s also encouraged local action, and engaged staff across the MoJ and its agencies. Since the report’s publication, we’ve also seen the Peterborough launch and consultation is imminent on braoder reforms.

Asked which factors are most important in achieving that “significant” progress, Slater cites a few. Engaging staff across the organisation is crucial – Slater has been travelling the country to meet the ‘transformers’ who have volunteered to help support the programme, and MoJ is now using Idea Street, an internal social network developed by the Department for Work and Pensions for suggesting and rating ideas.

Slater also stresses the importance of building a cross-disciplinary team at a senior level to ensure that “the transformation work didn’t end up as the job of a few policymakers”; but his final reflection is on the importance of resources. “I’ve got a broad range of responsibilities now,” he says, “but when I started I was the board member with full responsibility for developing a transformation agenda. That was all I had to do, and I had a team of people working for me on it: you do need to resource this thing properly.”

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