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The Next Steps Initiative and the Prison Service

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British central Government has traditionally been centralised with departments functionally organised according to services performed and responsibilities. This has regularly raised wider concerns that senior Civil Service management is dominated by people with skills in policy formulation, and relatively little experience of managing or working where services are actually being delivered. These concerns over inadequate accountability and effectiveness have led to a number of attempts to reform the structure of the Service.

The Fulton Report (1968)1) and the Financial Management Initiative (1982)2) aimed for limited hiving off of executive functions and greater accountability, but didn’t change much of the service culture. In 1988 the Next Steps program attempted to address the problems in service functioning, focusing on the central objectives of improving service delivery and accountability by setting up executive, semi-autonomous agencies. The issue of prisons highlighted the deficiencies within the administrative system, providing some context to the reform and objectives

Problems existed in the dichotomy between policy and administration, with consequential problems for accountability. The IBBS or Next Steps report3), published by the Efficiency Unit, shattered accountability claims. Next Steps was seen as a response to the need for more customer conscious and cost effective public services. Under the programme, the main strategic policy and resource control would lie with the Minister within the framework document. Once the policy objectives were set, the Civil Service management of the semi detached service agency should then have as much flexibility as possible in deciding how those objectives are met in day to day service delivery.

In a disparate range of agencies with resulting differences in terms of accountability, this arrangement had done well in mechanistic and operational areas such as passports or driving licences. The delegated responsibility, clear targets and greater freedom of action had improved performance and service in these agencies. There’s a second group of agencies that are more politically sensitive, for example employment and benefit agencies, and at far end of the spectrum, some highly political undertakings like the prison service.

As a semi-independent executive agency, prisons had caused concern over the effectiveness of the Next Steps managerial flexibility reforms, and the greater failure of prisons threatened to discredit the system. The Prison Service became an agency in April 1993, with Home Secretary, Michael Howard, accountable to Parliament for policy matters. Responsible for providing broad policy and strategic frameworks for what the prison service was supposed to do, he was not expected to become involved in the day to day management. Consultation by the newly appointed Director General and Chief Executive of prisons, Derek Lewis, on handling of operational matters that could give rise to grave or parliamentary concern was expected however. Within the framework set out, Lewis should have as much independence as possible, and this philosophy was based on the assumption that this distinction could be made.

The Whitemoor and Parkhurst prison escapes in 1994 and 1995 led to the Learmont Inquiry (1995)4). It highlighted the lack of operations independence and the undermined position of the Director General. As a result, Howard dismissed Lewis, which led to the scrutiny of questions of parliamentary accountability, in particular due to Howard’s reliance on the Tory whip and not being named as a culprit in the report. It thus seemed that responsibility had become a meaningless notion, coarsening politics.

Howard asserted that his decision was based on the reasoning that escapes were a result of prison operations. This was debatable since ultimate responsibility for significant operational matters directly and indirectly fell on Howard’s shoulders. Lewis responded that the goings on in the agency were both policy and operational. Particularly because Howard was intervening and was expected to be consulted on operational matters that could give rise to public and parliamentary concern.

According to Lewis, the responsibility division was blurred and the finger of blame could not be pointed. However the then Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, claimed he was passing the buck and announced that all Parliamentary questions would be answered by a Home Office Minister. This resulted in a situation giving Ministers authority without responsibility, and agency responsibility without authority, even on black and white issues such as ordering the Director General to suspend the Parkhurst Governor before the inquiry had reported.

The framework document outlined roles and tasks but the purpose mission statement was too vague. As Rod Morgan has pointed out5), standards in prisons often concern perceived human rights issues or violations and will remain areas of strong debate. Sir Peter Woolhead was appointed to monitor prisons as the ombudsman. There was no desire, however, to get him greatly involved so his scope was limited through withdrawal of checks and mechanisms or policy decisions from his agenda.

The bottom line of the Next Steps report was value for money, reiterating the Citizens Charter aims and problems of challenging targets and lack of money. The assumption that any policy or operations divide was at all workable was possibly clutching at straws when money is the basis of most political and policy issues.

The division concept was a persistent idea, but whether it could truly arise, who should take responsibility and accountability, and how to follow through decisions had to be addressed. The Woolf Report6) following the Strangeways riot in 1989-90 was the agency forerunner. The recommendation was much in line with the overall Next Steps philosophy, and in examining aforementioned questions pointed to a quasi-contractual structured stand off. Next Steps was really an institutional look at the Citizen’s Charter in practice, as these changes were part of the service reforms that also influenced Charter ideas.

The prison's case pointed out the weakness of Next Steps. The heart of the problem, accountability and ministerial control, was still under examination much later; evidenced in opposition to Howard from former prison minister Anne Widdecombe in 1997. Fulton had previously noted potential dangers of trying to draw the line between agencies and central Government, and the Parliamentary and constitutional issues it would raise.

How could ministers cling to their monopoly of accountability to Parliament via outdated models of ministerial responsibility, in respect of semi-autonomous agencies that would wish to operate at an arms length from ministerial control. It was and is difficult to avoid involvement of ministers because they monitor agencies, thus have a close eye on operations and also a degree of influence. Next Steps left the doctrine of ministerial responsibility largely unaltered. It follows that a minister wishes the agency to work in a way to suit them. The nature of this problem was especially applicable to the prison service due to its political sensitivity.

Such areas will always remain at high risk of intervention. Even more so since the prison service is one with close links to civil liberties, a vote winner for government. Thus it was tempting for Howard to intervene in the system, of significant importance in any political arena.

Ministers are always likely to become too involved in politically sensitive areas. The lines of responsibility remain blurred as operational and policy questions merge. Passing the buck and unwillingness to accept responsibility when things go wrong means the public loses faith in the institutions. Fewer high calibre people from the private sector would wish to run public agencies

Systems must address the issue of accountability more effectively. The Woolf Report provided the agency change background for the prison service but Morgan’s analysis of such independent status as 'providing flexibility/freedom and enhancing accountability' was excessively optimistic. Learmont officially concluded that the blame stopped short of Howard, but did find much room for improvement. Questions remained over the appropriateness of Sir John Learmont’s suitability to head the enquiry given a military background. Lewis had never dealt with this type of operation before, but did make notable achievements in some areas. Problems arose in separating himself from policy decisions affecting him.

The experience showed that separating policy from operations is good in theory but doesn’t correlate effectively or ideally with the constitution of the United Kingdom. The system was troubled by ministerial responsibility existing as part of an unwritten constitution.

The apparently flawed Next Steps management restructuring philosophy may have worked better were agency heads genuine political appointments fully answerable to MP’s and the public, and liable to be removed on a change of government. This would have addressed some questions of responsibility and possibly altered the scapegoat philosophy.

However this may not have suited British administrative ideology. It would have raised new issues of accountability to parliament and to the people. Woolf talked of giving power back to the prisons but this was no longer a realistic possibility or a legitimate expectation. The contractual underpinning of relationships is suggested as specifying what should be done and the money to do it; much like the framework document. This was close to recommending agency status, but did not specifically say so. Where Government wanted to take charge, it must also have taken responsibility.

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