In conversation with Ian Porée, MOJ

The Executive Director of Community Interventions at HM Prison and Probation Service talks to EY's Radhika Chadwick about the challenges facing the MOJ and its approach to Big Data and technology


31 Jan 2019

Radhika Chadwick: So what would you say are the three biggest challenges facing the MOJ today?

Ian Porée: As with most public services, we have some common pressures. The first is the continued demand for and increasing complexity of our services, and the second is the ever-increasing expectation of those who receive these services and on whose behalf we deliver them, the public.

We also have the challenge that we are still trying to deliver better outcomes for less with rigid, bureaucratic organisation.  Our Victorian buildings are a good metaphor for our information infrastructure.  We collect enormous amounts of information about the work we do, the services and the people in our care or under our supervision. But despite having this information, we have a considerable way to go to extract the full value and insight embedded in that information to help us make better decisions and to help us deliver better outcomes for citizens. 

We feel the increasing pressures on our system, but we aren’t yet unlocking the enablers and tools which could help us better adapt to the ever-changing circumstances we face, and make more cost-effective use of the public money that we have available. Our physical and information infrastructure requires significant modernisation.

Do you see technology and data playing a role in the preventative agenda in the social justice space?

The simple answer is “yes I do”. Typically, when someone finds themselves in our part of social justice system, there are so many practical things in their life that haven’t worked very well.  They are likely to be unemployed, homeless, in debt, suffering with mental health conditions, and struggling with addiction. We could offer insights from our data that could help people navigate a path out of social exclusion.  We could help people reintegrate into society by designing services with enabling tools that work for each person in the local community they live in.  We would make better use public money, and essentially keep society safer by preventing harm.

If you look back on the government use of technology, it hasn’t always been an easy journey. What are the challenges in actually getting this part of the public sector to embrace the potential of new technology in different ways?

I think it’s fair to say, e are a good example of a part of the public service who have found technology-enabled change both slow and expensive to deliver - but this does not need to be the case. It’s just that in the past when we have deployed technological change, we have made it very complicated and have delivered it in very traditional, large-scale technology programmes that often end up taking a lot longer than we thought.

We need to re-engage our staff with tools and technologies that make a difference to their day-to-day ways of working. Then in the background we need to refresh and modernise the technology infrastructure that we are using. One of the things we have been doing is engineering our data in a way that makes it accessible to whatever tools and technologies we want to use. The data can then be used to solve business problems. This is user-driven digital design.

One large scale deployment we’ve undertaken is augmented decision support. This is a predictive algorithm which effectively makes a judgement about the level of serious harm that someone is likely to present. It is deployed to over a quarter million people and supports decisions made by front line professionals. It gets to the very heart of what we are here to do, which to is to protect the public. We are very alert to the important ethical considerations of using algorithmic decision support because these tools are built from our historical data. We don’t forget the fact that we are making judgements based on the learning from some historical data that includes unequal treatment or bias.

How are you approaching Big Data?

We haven’t historically regarded our very large data sets as being valuable assets. We’ve considered the data as something we have to archive somewhere. We need to rethink what these huge data sets represent. A large private organisation would think of this data as an incredible asset and that would allow them to serve their customers even better. We have an opportunity to use this data to help us make better decisions for the citizens we serve. 

I also strongly believe that more of this data should be more publicly available. This is public data and we should be more open and more transparent. If our data sets were more available to a much broader range of people, they could help us solve some of the complex problems in our system. We should be treating this data strategically, it’s a valuable asset and we should make it more available (obviously taking appropriate care to anonymise the data) to organisations and people who want to come and help us improve.

Why is diversity and inclusion important to you personally?

On a very personal level, I grew up in South Africa where I saw an extreme example of how unequal treatment had damaging consequences for society. But the country, under the incredible leadership of Nelson Mandela, took the view that it could be a different kind of a place, a “rainbow nation” as he described it. It could set a direction for the future which meant all people could be given equal opportunity to be who they want to be. Celebrating people’s differences but working to a common future for all.

I have been working within the prison and probation services for over a decade now, I have seen some real improvements. At a very practical level, the board that I joined 10 years ago was underrepresented by women. But now we have many more women and we are a better board because of it, we have better conversations, we have different perspectives applied to the complex work we do.

Why is diversity and inclusion so important to your organisation?

There has been legitimate criticism that criminal justice system has unequal treatment at all stages of the system, from when people first encounter the police and courts, all the way through to the prison and probation services. We as an organisation pay a lot of attention to this inequality. We have significant work underway, to understand every point at which there is a possibility that our system, may make a decision which would treat people in an unequal way.

We are a large scale employer of over 45,000 staff and thousands more in our supply chains, and our staff should be representative of the people we serve. That matters in so many different ways in terms of the legitimacy of our authority. We have quite an ambitious program to continue to align our workforce over time, so we look a whole lot more like the people we serve.

How are you making sure that your organisation pays enough attention to these issues?

We’ve set up a new governance which is specifically looking at the interface between the new digital tools and data. We have specifically started conversations about the ethical standards we will set for any of the big augmented decisions. That’s a really important way of making sure we effectively govern decisions which ultimately will affect citizens.

What would you like your legacy to be from a diversity and inclusiveness perspective?

If we continue on the path of remaining open to diverse views and opinions, if we are willing to suspend our predisposed view of how things should work, and see things from new perspectives, being open and transparent, if we continue to be humble and to properly listen to other’s points of view, then that’s the space that we will learn and grow from – and I will continue to be very proud to be part of it.

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