Tagging isn’t working – privatisation is no panacea

September 24, 2012

Tagging criminals can play an important role in tackling crime and ensuring effective rehabilitation. Sadly, at the moment tagging in the UK isn’t coming close to fulfilling its potential and the way the government has procured corrections technology has provided poor value for money for the taxpayer.

Our report, Future of Corrections, has made clear that the current system of tagging isn’t working and is in desperate need of reform. Tagging in the US is much more advanced than in England and Wales. Ankle bracelets have become smaller, smarter and more durable, with many tags now GPS-enabled, meaning that the police can ascertain someone’s location at all times.

In the UK, on the other hand, innovation has been limited. Since tagging was first introduced in this country in 1989, three private-sector suppliers have enjoyed a virtual monopoly position over tagging, with no real competitive pressure.

The lack of innovation around corrections technology is an important example of where an old-style privatisation versus public ownership debate has stopped effectively serving the public interest. The way that government has procured tagging technology has done little to benefit the citizen and hasn’t created a truly local and competitive market.

Privatisation or increased use of the private sector isn’t a panacea and it offers no guarantee of improved services. Without competition and the creation of a proper market, private monopolies can develop without an adequate incentive for continual improvement or enhanced responsiveness. Merely swapping a public monopoly for a private monopoly is not going to provide the competitive pressures that will deliver innovation and value for the taxpayer.

Without proper diversity of supply, only a few firms will be able to afford bidding for, never mind supplying, tagging technology at the national level. That isn’t good for the taxpayer and it isn’t going to provide the kind of innovation and adjustment to local needs that is necessary.

Nevertheless, real competition and responsiveness can deliver real strides in service improvement, as well as considerable savings for the taxpayer. A CBI study this year found that the government could save £22bn a year, while maintaining service standards, by opening up some state monopolies to competition.

That’s why localism needs to be built into the way that government procures tagging technologies. Rather than procurement at a national level, the procurement system needs to give much more power to police and probation services at a local level.

The creation of a real market at a local level would give suppliers, police and probation officers the freedom to design, develop and contract services that address and are responsive to local priorities and needs. Rather than the present system, which is top-down and built around monopolies, a genuine local market would empower local decision makers, encouraging competition and innovation.

Private sector good, public sector bad is a lazy mantra. Instead, competition and localism good, monopoly bad should be the mantra that governments – and their civil servants – consider when designing new procurement mechanisms.

The private sector is at its most effective and dynamic when there are sufficient competitive pressures to produce innovation and service improvement and it is responsive to local pressures. That hasn’t been the case with the procurement of tagging technologies. Without our proposed injection of competition and localism, tagging will, for another decade, fail to fulfil its potential to tackle crime and rehabilitate criminals.

This article originally appeared on The Guardian’s website

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