First indications from Peterborough – what do they tell us?

Last week was a big week for Social Finance as reoffending data on the Peterborough pilot was published by the Office of National Statistics. This gives the first early sense of how our first Social Impact Bond is doing. In this blog I want to explore the results a little and some of their implications.

So, first, the numbers, or to give it its full title:

Peterborough (and national equivalent) interim re-conviction figures using a partial (19 month) cohort and a 6 month re-conviction period

 Peterborough

National

Discharge Period

Cohort size

Binary

Frequency

Binary

Frequency

 Sep05-Mar07

725

39.70%

72

36.60%

61

 Sep06-Mar08

870

40.30%

81

37.80%

64

 Sep07-Mar09

1031

40.70%

84

38.30%

68

 Sep08-Mar10

981

41.60%

87

37.30%

69

 Sep10-Mar12

844

39.20%

81

39.30%

79

Binary: Reconviction rate over six months
Frequency: Frequency of reconviction events per 100 offenders within six months

Three topics to cover:

–          Is the Peterborough SIB working?

–          What do these numbers tell us about whether investors are likely to get paid?

–          Do they have any implications for developing the national recidivism PbR work?

1.  Is the Peterborough SIB working?

Put simply, it would appear so. The best way to show this is to index the results so that you can see them together and then to plot Peterborough relative to the national data:

Rebased reoffending data

So, the key measure for us is the one that we will be paid on, the percentage change in frequency of reoffending against a comparison group, in this instance the national cohort.

Peterborough relative to national

On that basis Peterborough has shown a 23% relative decline to the national data. On a sample size of 844 this is likely to be statistically significant, so on reoffending within six months, rather than a year, it appears we are making a difference.

Any caveats? A number. This is on the basis of six month reoffending, not 12 months, so one could argue that the impact of our programme may lessen over time. The comparison group, of wider national reoffending, is not as carefully defined as the comparison group that we have developed in the Peterborough model proper, where the reoffending rates of a matched cohort from the police national computer is used. Given this, the comparator group 16% increase over a two year period is something of an outlier, but it is all we have to go on.

So plenty of caveats. But however much these figures are indicative and however tentative and careful we are being; for a programme in its infancy and on its first cohort, this is a great start.

2. What do we know about whether investors will get paid?

So, two completely different numbers to note here:

a) the 23% relative decline discussed above; and

b) the fact that after this change the frequency and binary metric for Peterborough are now in line with the national average.

In other words what we have achieved so far is to move Peterborough from its historically higher rate of recidivism, to the national average. Through one lens we have done tremendously well. Through another lens Peterborough did (almost) exactly the same as the national average. Which lens will be reflected in the comparison group drawn from the police national computer?

If the prisoners in Peterborough are different and thus reoffend more, then this should be picked up in the comparison group as each individual is matched to one as similar as possible.

If the local environment is different, the prison for example, or the courts system, or the police… Then it is much less clear whether that will be picked up by the comparison group. It could be in part, if prisoners going through Peterborough are relatively local (and about 70% are) then those factors could be picked up to some extent in their criminal history and be matched to prisoners from similar environments. For those that are more transient, for example those coming through from London, such effects are unlikely to be picked up.

Locally there has been speculation for a number of years around why Peterborough’s recidivism rate is higher than the national average, and most of that speculation has focused on prisoner mix. But I don’t believe anybody has any evidence to back that up.

So, this all adds up to probably a greater uncertainty as to whether we will be paid for outcomes than we have that the programme is generating outcomes.

3. Any implications for the development of the national PbR programme?

These numbers probably complicate the development of the national PbR programme in one significant way, they give the impression of an increasing trend in reoffending, while the wider crime stats in terms of amount of reported crime and the British Crime Survey has generally been going down.

The key requirement this creates is that the Ministry of Justice needs to be completely transparent with the data and analysis that it is using to develop the counterfactual data. It simply cannot credibly develop it on its own and then tell people the answer. Regional variation needs to be understood, historical variance needs to be understood, a dialogue is needed to develop an acceptable answer.

Secondly, it increases the potential, in my view, for a proportion of outcomes payment to come from a fixed sized pot that is shared out according to relative performance amongst providers. This will resolve some of the uncertainties in bidders minds and show them that, while they may be taking a risk, there is a defined amount of outcomes payments that will be made if they perform better than some of their peers.

For such a pot to work, there should be a requirement to give a minimum spend on rehabilitation in the bidding process. Open book accounting thereafter can ensure that bidders keep to their promises, but the amount that bidders are willing to invest in reducing reoffending can then be used as part of their assessment. This can be used to counter the issue in the Work Programme – that for profit maximising providers the outcomes payments for harder to reach groups are insufficient to invest in trying to get them back into work.

So, the idea that bidders demonstrate a minimum commitment, is vital to maintaining the programmes credibility – that it is about rehabilitation, as opposed to only being about cost cutting and privatisation.

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A Step In the Right Direction But Not Enough

This blog was also posted on Social Finance’s blog here

Slowly we are getting to know more about the plans for probation and prisoner rehabilitation reform. We can see that some effort is being made to make the model work better following the consultation but is it enough to allow for a level playfield for all providers to take part? Will it achieve the ultimate goal reducing crime?

The key positive changes are as follows:

  • The whole idea that rehabilitation of prisoners and short sentence prisoners in particular has moved to centre stage and has become a key government policy is terrific and long overdue. Many should feel embarrassed that this has taken so long.
  • The idea of resettlement prisons, which will have a requirement to work with those providing rehabilitation services, and to which prisoners will be transferred at least three months before release. This resolves a key issue that effective rehabilitation needs to start in prison, rather than after.
  • The acceptance that a mix of binary and frequency measurement is required to make this system work. This may sound an esoteric point but is vital. A binary measure only pays in the event that a prisoner stops committing crime for twelve months. A frequency measure pays for reductions in offending across a cohort. Some people go through the prison system 10 or more times a year. If you have only a binary measure as was originally suggested the only correct financial decision when faced with such an individual (and required to give them a service) would be to give them a leaflet and tell them to go away. Further investment would invariably be loss-making as intense effort over a period of time and money is needed both to gain trust and thereafter help to move their lives in the right direction. Being paid on frequency and therefore acknowledging “distance travelled” will make it worthwhile financially.
  • The shift in number of contract areas from 16 to 21, and the different area sizes, are positive changes. This should mean that social organisations acting as primes, or a probation trust mutual, can bid.
  • But the positive impact of other elements in the response is less clear. The idea of standard contracts is interesting, but will they have to be finalised before the last round of bidding? In other words is there wriggle room?
  • The transparency piece sounds like a step in the right direction, but only a step. Input cost data and outcome payments should be transparently available across the market. In the public sector we see how much is spent on what and hopefully also get an idea (not always!) of the outcomes generated from that money. In the circumstances where you are building a new market, this data is even more important, not less. There will be enough benefit to incumbency without letting providers keep hold of this data. This will also make it clearer if a provider is not finding it economic to work with a particular cohort and is parking them.
  • The comments about women in prison were good to see, but they didn’t seem to imply that anything would be done to make the model work for women.

And there are areas where we simply don’t know anything:

  • What are the potential pricing expectations?
  • Will there be significant segmentation of the cohort and the pricing that goes with it?
  • Will men and women be priced the same? Needs and complexity are very different.
  • Is there room for alterations of pricing for specific groups as we learn over time? It seems deeply unlikely that it will be right first time.

So, at the end of this, what are concerns?

1. This is an incredibly complex, risky and ambitious programme of change. Tom Gash at the Institute for Government has written on this issue in his blog, with sensible recommendations for reducing the risk.

2. Bidding process and pace will favour incumbents

I was told by a private sector provider considering bidding for prisons that they had understood they should expect to bid in one round to learn how to possibly win in a later round. In other words, spend £1 million plus on a learning process before you stand a chance. Social organisations or probation trust mutuals don’t have that luxury. Those who know what the MoJ expects in large contracts will score better than those who are learning on the process. So the answer that it’s a level playing field simply doesn’t wash.

If charities are going to invest upwards of £250,000 of charitable funds and a considerable proportion of senior management time on a bidding process, they need more substance from the MoJ that they stand a realistic chance.

In addition, while there are some limited resources available to help test the mutual option, developing such a strategy and capacity takes time. So would developing a social prime and investment for it. The focus on the timetable above all else is in danger of defining the answer.

It should be a strategic imperative for the MoJ to end up with a mixed economy of private and social provision (and not just in the supply chain, at the prime level). There will be more learning, more constructive competitive tension, and probably greater investment in rehabilitation. European law should allow the MoJ to actively manage the market and they should do so, explicitly.

3. There is still room for gaming in the bidding

Gaming bidding is where an entity bids on the basis of having little intention of doing much rehabilitation, and makes money from input revenues without generating very many outcomes. Some seems to have occurred in the work programme, particularly around harder to reach groups. There are a number of ways that the MoJ can avoid this, examples include:

  • Requiring a certain level of investment in rehabilitation and monitoring it.
  • Scoring bidders on how much they say they will invest in rehabilitation and monitoring it.
  • Requiring transparency on input and outcome data and stating that bidders authenticity to what they said they would do will be assessed and those below a certain threshold won’t be allowed to bid again.
  • Without such measures, a sense that a low cost, gaming bid is likely to do better than a higher cost, rehabilitative bid will prevail

4. I’m not convinced the numbers add up

I can’t see into probation numbers, so I don’t know if it works to take out 20% of cost and provide an effective rehabilitation service for a wider community on top. But my instinct is that real rehabilitation will require real money. This money  is presently tied up in prisons. There should be a sense that these contracts can, if very successful, eat into the prison budget. What is fundamentally up for grabs here is what is the right allocation of resources between processing and punishing people, and trying to stop them doing it again. I wrote about this more substantially on another occasion. Read it here. My view is that the allocation that gets the number of future victims of crime to be as low as possible. In other words this is not about being nice to prisoners, or not nice to prisoners. It is about stopping crime and helping avoid further victims.

In conclusion, the MoJ is making some effort to allow this to work for a wider community than simply their incumbent private sector providers but not enough. The perceived need for speed and the inaccurate perception that they are building a level playing field are likely to undermine social sector interest in bidding at the top tier. The rehabilitation revolution should be about creating social value, reducing crime and reducing the costs of justice overall, and not simply about providing a lower cost privatised probation service. It would be a shame if at the end of the process this was how it was perceived.

Would I invest? Part 2 on our arms manufacturing social enterprise

This is the follow up post to this one here.

Thanks for everyone’s input on this – I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it. People’s answers demonstrated the two basic philosophical approaches to looking at the problem:

a)      A deontological or Kantian ethics approach: that investing in weapons manufacture is intrinsically not social. Therefore neither ethical nor social.

b)      A utilitarian approach: that investing in this weapons manufacturer would overall reduce loss of life and civilian casualties and is therefore a social investment.

In my limited experience when there is an argument between people where one is taking a utilitarian approach and the other a Kantian the best  thing to do is to leave and go to the pub, as they are starting from such different background frameworks they are unlikely to achieve consensus.

A route that combined the two was put forward by Phil Caroe of Allia (thank you Phil), in an ethical investment model: If you believe weapons are unfortunately necessary, and therefore in your universe of acceptable investments, then this investment would score highly on a comparative basis with other potential weapon manufacturer investments. This combines the two by using rules to determine your investment universe and then comparative methods to make a selection. My only concern with this is that it is a passive investment methodology, where your starting point is that you have money to invest and a set of possible investments, which are the best ones?

So where do I come out on this? Well if we apply an active impact investor type model for understanding this investment, one would look at three elements:

a)      Does it have a sensible theory of change or evidence base? In other words do we believe that its actions will lead to the outcome that it is seeking.

b)      Is there a better way to achieve the goals than the way proposed?

c)       What might be the unintended consequences and are they serious enough for us to worry about?

When understanding a) there are a number of attractions. The model has thought through a best angle of intervention, where the pressure points might lie. It has thought through how to be credible to its target audience. It understands the market it is in and the change it is seeking to create. There isn’t any evidence base of course, but this kind of change agent role wouldn’t have an evidence base.

As for b) a much deeper analysis would be required with the team and talking to external experts. Other possibilities might be more grant funded, campaigning or lobbying for example, but we should be able to compare them and then make an assessment rather than allowing our chosen investment methodology to determine our answer.

If I have any concerns, it is around c) unintended consequences… In other words the What Ifs? For example, if they made land mines more acceptable again, would more countries start using them again? One can start getting into quite deep analysis of the value of improving defensive strategies if you aren’t careful. To use a different example, Drones are, some might argue, the ultimate social weapon as they minimise civilian casualties and focus on the bad guys. But their very nature makes them easier to use, more acceptable even. The potential consequences of that ease of use are still playing out. There is quite a good discussion on this on the moral maze, a BBC radio programme. You can download the podcast here (The one thing it does demonstrate is that the last person you want sitting at the other end controlling the drone is Melanie Philips from the Daily Mail).

So I would not be inclined to invest myself. But if someone with real expertise in the area felt they had explored all the other options, and that this was the strategic route to making a difference in this particularly thorny problem then I would be open to them investing and considering it social investment. I don’t think the moral hazard quite puts it out by default in other words.

A few things to highlight from all this.

First, when people try to make ethical decisions they can start from at least two very different starting points. Therefore attempting to reconcile all into a universal answer to impact investment decision making is not going to succeed.

Second, finding answers to complex social issues is not easy. Potential points of leverage and strategies are not straightforward or necessarily comfortable. Many of them transgress traditional red lines for foundations or social investors. They might involve private enterprise. They might be perceived as subsidising government. Someone might make a profit. My fear is that in their struggle to work through what to invest in, organisations start by putting these red lines in place. What this means in practice is that some of the most interesting potential answers will struggle to raise investment.

Social Enterprise Arms Manufacturer – Would you invest? Vote now!

I’m doing a series of posts exploring the edges of social enterprise. In each instance I will create a poll for you to choose between:

  • This is a social enterprise and I would invest in it.
  • This is a social enterprise but I wouldn’t invest in it.
  • This isn’t a social enterprise and if someone else invested I would  question their credentials as a social investor.

After the poll I will put my own thoughts. If you have any questions you would like to put to the management of my fictitious social enterprise please ask a comment and I will endeavour to respond appropriately. In this instance they have some quite strong opinions.

Social enterprise arms manufacturer 

So, a group of ex-military types have got together. They have seen the horrors of war and in particular the impact on civilian populations. They have also been involved with clean up operations afterwards. They have ideas on how military hardware can be made easier to clean up and lower impact on non-combatants without impacting on its lethal effectiveness against the enemy.

In particular they have ideas for a clean up mechanism for mines, where an encrypted key can be used to make them safe and more easily detected with the relevant equipment that would only be available once hostilities were over. They are confident that they can make this work to the satisfaction of the military users of such equipment and that this would be a “route to salvation” for some of the larger non-signatories to the Ottawa Treaty on anti-personnel mines, including the US, Russia and China.

Their plan is to go to the arms manufacturers state customers to create an impetus behind “safe but lethal” weaponry. They then plan to work alongside the more sceptical manufacturers around design and the further research and development needed to move their ideas into implementation. They believe that over time they will build credibility with the manufacturers due to their military experience and complete comfort with, indeed enthusiasm for, weapons being as lethal as possible to the opposition.

They need investment, initially of £3m, rising to £10m for both the lobbying effort and to do the initial work on their designs to get them to the point of detailed designs and non lethal replicas which are important for arms fairs, a key part of the marketing cycle. The can’t get this from traditional commercial sources, though if they are successful, they should make a reasonable return on your investment.

This may appear an unconventional investment. Some of their opinions are uncompromising, but the intensity and seriousness of their interest in reducing civilian casualties, and enabling countries to rebuild after war cannot be questioned. Nor can the blood curdling stories on which that passion is based.