Why the government needs to trust charities with its data

By Lucy Heady 6 April 2010

We all know that the prison system in this country is a mess of contradictions. On the one hand they want to reduce re-offending but run the prison system in a way that moves offenders around the country away from their families and interrupting rehabilitation. On the other hand they are desperate to save money but lock up young offenders in institutions that set them on a life of crime and cost more to run per inmate than Eton.

I have just found a new contradiction: the prison system’s attitude to data. On the one hand they demand that the charities they fund provide evidence of their impact, yet they do not let these charities access they very data they need to make their case.

Of course, NPC thinks that evidence of impact is incredibly important and charities working in prisons are no exception. Despite all of the challenges of finding the right measures, tracking service users and finding evidence for what would have happened if your charity had never existed, NPC believes that charities should do all that they can to overcome these barriers. If you don’t have evidence you don’t know if what you do works and you can’t improve what you do.

But we think that charities working with prisoners in the UK might have a pretty good excuse for not being able to demonstrate their impact. Charities need to be able to track individual prisoners throughout the prison system and after release if they are to have a hope of understand their impact on reoffending rate. But the UK’s National Offender Management Service (NOMS) does not typically allow charities access to individual data. This is due to antiquated computer systems, underinvestment in data-collection and a risk-averse approach to data protection.

There is some hope: Safe Ground is currently working with NOMS to try to track individual prisoner outcomes and the Prince’s Trust is running a pilot using the Police National Computer to check the reoffending rates of a sample of young offenders on its programmes. I hope that once NOMS sees the power of the kind of data this tracking can produce they will find ways to make their data more accessible to other charities.

The government holds the key to unlocking what does and doesn’t work with reducing reoffending. They should find ways to overcome the logistical barriers to anonymising and sharing data. Otherwise, they won’t be able to get what they’re asking for from charities and worse, we won’t be able to reduce the shockingly high reoffending rates we have in this country.

I suspect that this is not the only example of government agencies asking charities to provide evidence it is simply impossible for them to collect—if you have any examples then I’d love the hear about them.