This morning Make Justice Work published their report on the principles that should underlie how Payment by Results (PbR) should operate in the criminal justice sector. The principles were based on a day-long discussion of 30 “experts” (of which I was one as NPC’s Head of Measurement and Evaluation) in different parts of the criminal justice sector on the opportunities and risks of PbR.

The principles are difficult to argue against, and the government would be well advised to take heed of them as well as the concerns noted in the report. One particular concern is the risk of relying on the single measure of reconviction as a proxy for reoffending.

But the real challenge is how to apply these principles in practice, in large part because some of the principles are in tension with others. For example ensuring equity of outcomes implies addressing needs of all offenders equally. But keeping a focus on outcomes suggests shifting resources to where most difference can be made, which might mean disinvesting in services for offenders who are unlikely to change. The latter could be described negatively as “cherry picking” or positively as “getting most bang for your buck.”

Different people can have different views on how to resolve this tension. But what is most needed is the evidence and data to shed light on exactly how serious this tension is, and open-mindedness and maturity (rather than taking a fixed ideological stand) when considering it. Taking a cold, hard, look at what can really be achieved is something that businesses can do well, though as G4S has shown, overconfidence can prevail. PbR can potentially help reduce crime by bringing maturity to debates on criminal justice policy and practice. That would be a big step forward.

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