‘A model across government’: We hear from the award-winning team who recruited 2,500 new prison officers

We spoke to the communication insight and evaluation manager of the 2018 Communication Award winners about how strategic use of data led to a highly successful campaign

Credit: Baldo Sciacca

By Giles Gibbins

17 Sep 2019

In November 2016 the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) committed to recruiting an additional 2,500 prison officers by the end of 2018. Official figures released the month before showed that the number of frontline prison officers had been falling steadily – from 20,000 in 2010, to only 14,607 in September 2016.

A recruitment campaign was implemented to manage the employment drive, with a focus on using data and insight and a multi-disciplinary team.

Ultimately the campaign was successful, and recruited the additional 2,500 prison officers 7 months ahead of schedule.

We asked Giles Gibbins, communication insight and evaluation manager of the team, some questions.

Tell us a bit about the project?

The campaign was recognised by the Cabinet Office as one of the highest-performing government recruitment campaigns. Alex Aiken, executive director of the Government Communications Service, praised the department’s overall approach to strategic communications and described the campaign as a model across government. The campaign also won 2 awards; Public Sector campaign of the year by the Association of Measurement and Evaluation (AMEC), and the Communication award in the Civil Service Awards. Judges in both campaigns praised the use and analysis of data.

My role was varied. I work as an evaluation and insight manager in communications and marketing at MoJ and supported the project from a communication and marketing perspective. This meant being responsible for making evidence-based recommendations, alongside carrying out primary research from applicants, colleagues and wider stakeholders, in addition to developing systems to process the vast amounts of communications data.

What did you learn from your work on the Recruitment Campaign Team? 

The team had a common goal and was structured to put data at the heart of it. We had colleagues from a wide range of roles, including HR, Communications and Analytical Services, alongside wider suppliers, all working collaboratively. The recruitment campaign project was an opportunity to put theory into practice - for example, data is often said to have 4 uses; Describe, Diagnose, Predict and Prescribe. We used this framework to structure our approach to data (see box-out below). 

What was the biggest challenge you faced in this project, and how did you overcome it?

The prison officer recruitment project team was formed at pace, bringing together staff and suppliers who hadn’t worked together before, with a firm deadline. From the outset there was a culture that promoted using data to improve existing processes, underpinned by a common goal and good project management. Staff had agreed roles and responsibilities and new software (Power BI) was purchased to have a single data source. This included anything on the existing workforce to a breakdown of where in the recruitment process each applicant was.

The team were also geographically dispersed, so technology was used to bring everyone together and there were regular social events which enabled us to get to know the broader team.

What has happened with the project since you won the award?

Processes have embedded and become viewed as ‘business as usual’, with continued emphasis on data and improvement. We are now harnessing the knowledge learnt during prison officer recruitment on other recruitment campaigns for the wider Prison and Probation Service, and these can be found here.

What is your best advice for others building a recruitment campaign?

Look to use a variety of data at every opportunity. We used quantitative data, such as website polling data, and supplemented it with qualitative data from focus groups. We also leant on secondary data sources such as local employment data and data from suppliers, which gave us a much richer insight. The culture of the project promoted using data, but not only internally – we also expected our suppliers to put data at the heart of any decision.

The 'Four Uses of Data' in practice:

  • Describing

This was a HR led project and they had a wealth of data including actual vs staff target, turnover rates along with demographic data. This was useful for communications and marketing as it showed there were specific locations that needed marketing support, and this informed the strategy. For example, we approached the work as a series of regional campaigns rather than a national campaign. But we were unsure of wider perceptions about HMPS, and what potential applicants thought about working for the organisation. We commissioned polling, using this data as a Key Performance Indicator. Website data also showed that the recruitment site was getting thousands of visits, but only a few were converting (applying and starting employment).

  • Diagnosing

Data showed that sufficient numbers were starting an application, but insufficient were completing and submitting the application. To understand why, polling and focus groups were commissioned, and these illustrated that the creative proposition ‘Have you got it in you’ was too intimidating, and failed to sell the benefits of the role (career progression and training development, etc.). We used this insight and worked alongside an Agency to develop a new proposition, ‘One Career, Many Roles’, whilst simultaneously developing a new website – using data from the exiting website to inform the design of the new.

  • Predicting

Digital marketing facilitates an understanding of the user journey, so we analysed data to identify which media source yielded the most successful candidates, enabling us to predict the required level of marketing spend. We adopted an agile approach to media buying which included established channels such as job boards, social, and programmatic, alongside untested channels such as mobile apps and Gumtree. We would regularly review the data and move budgets accordingly.

  • Prescribing

Data provided insight that could be acted on immediately, such as the need to improve the reputation of the Prison Service. We structured the team so that there was a dedicated member of staff working with local media to highlight the variety and benefits of working as a prison officer. But data also asks questions that need longer consideration. The time it was taking for candidates to progress through the process was increasing, and our data identified the blockages. This led to process improvements such as changing the content and language in the emails candidates receive from the application system.

The 2019 Civil Service Awards shortlist will be announced on the 10th October. More information can be found here.

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