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Information, Advice and Guidance for commissioners of the Prison Education Dynamic Purchasing System

A blog from Offploy's Managing Director, Jacob Hill.

As we approach the launch of the Prison Education Dynamic Purchasing System in April 2019, I wanted to put together a short post to encourage and support prison governors to take control and do something which the Prison Education Framework is still developing… working with SMEs and the voluntary sector.

Offploy has working relationships with all of the core providers but we have noted many in the sector were somewhat disappointed to see that the outcome of the prison education procurement process was the same four providers winning the contracts again. Don’t worry, this post is not a whine about that but an exploration of what can be done with that magic 15% prison governors now have access to and how it can be used to provide specialist support to people with criminal convictions.

MoJ encourages SMEs

This post also comes at time when the Ministry of Justice has just launched their Small and Medium Enterprise Action Plan 2018 – 2022 – where they will aim to see 33% of their supply chain comprise of SMEs. It is a sound document, which openly addresses where the MoJ will have limitations but is very welcome since it demonstrates a clear intention to work with more small and medium enterprises. The MoJ clearly intends that the prison and probation services should benefit both from the expertise in the SME sector and from their greater willingness to recruit people with criminal convictions. This is a clever approach, which could suggest ‘inclusion targets’ for services being procured similar to the Thames Tideway Tunnel that has committed to supporting one person with a criminal convictions into work for every 100 people they employ.

Given all that is being done by the MoJ to engage SMEs and the calls for the Strengthening Probation 2020 to involve more of the voluntary sector in their services, it seems prison governors, with their autonomy over part of their education budget are in the right place to lead on this agenda.

Advice to prison governors

As a peer led social enterprise, less than three years old that employs fourteen people we have found challenge after challenge when it comes to securing public funding. We had to learn a lot of lessons before we were able to reach a stage where we secured multi-year contracts. We wish we’d had a friend guiding us through the minefield that is public sector procurement.

Firstly, commission fairly. The SMEs and the voluntary sector should always offer good value for money but they cannot compete in a race to the bottom against large providers with greater reserves and infrastructure. We are more agile and locally based and can better tailor our services to the need of your prison and your prisoners, but we probably won’t be the absolute cheapest in terms of unit cost. We are very happy to compete with the big boys and girls on outcomes though.

Secondly, focus on the progress not the track record. It is common for applications to be graded on track record, three years of company accounts and total number of learners supported but do we ever consider this in proportion? How much has this organisation achieved in the time it has been trading? How much added financial value do they bring from other sources of funding and how ambitious are they to deliver this contract? Could this be the break they’ve been searching for and would work day and night to achieve the outcomes rather than argue with you over your limitations and a ‘less than 20% fail rate’?

Finally, be patient and open to silly questions. We have built Offploy on holding our hands up and saying ‘we do not have all the answers, or even all the questions’. We often ask questions which are obvious and give away our naivety about certain situations. Thankfully, we’re working with some great partners that help us navigate new contracts. They are patient with us and do not exploit our naivety to shave a few quid off the contracts, instead they educate us (sometimes to even up our pricing) so that we might deliver a sustainable service which ultimately benefits their service users.

Despite being resilient, we have been fortunate for the most part to have great partners throughout our journey that are invested in our growth and ultimately the people we’re trying to help.

As a prison governor, you have the opportunity to commission socially and responsibly. Should you have the opportunity, I would urge you to meet with potential providers in order to put a personality to the offer. Make a judgment based on their action plan and their grit, not how much they spent on a bid writer to craft a bid which has no impact on their ability to deliver an amazing service.

Wouldn’t it be great to see more peer-led providers, small and medium businesses and the voluntary sector delivering expert, grass roots and bespoke services to your prison?


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