MoJ digital chief: ‘Prisons have been bypassed by the digital revolution – that is our next really big challenge’

Tom Read, CDIO at the Ministry of Justice, talks to PublicTechnology about how he believes technology and digital services could help turn prisons from a ‘Victorian dungeon to a rehabilitative space’

Credit: Michael Cooper/PA Wire/PA Images

When asked what achievements he would like to be looking back on 18 months hence, the Ministry of Justice’s chief digital and information officer Tom Read picks out two things.

The first of which is, simply, to continue to implement and cement digital skills across the department. The goal is to ensure that the MoJ – and all of its various executive agencies and arm’s-length bodies – each has “really focused, highly trained digital teams” that can support ongoing transformation long after Read has moved on. 

The second of Read’s objectives for the coming months speaks to a much grander ambition – one that he hopes can see the MoJ turn its attention in a big way to what may be among the last remaining spheres of government services that remain “bypassed by the digital revolution”. 

“I want prisons and probation services to be digital first, and to be safer and more focused on rehabilitation,” he says. “I think the opportunities of digital in that space are huge, and I’d like to leave a legacy of work that will take years to deliver, where we move much more towards a [situation] where, when you’re in prison, you can do useful things in your cell.”

He adds: “When you’re [about] to come out of prison, you may be able to sign up for Universal Credit, find somewhere to live, or do Open University-style training – rather than sitting staring at a wall in your cell. We can move away from a Victorian-dungeon approach to a rehabilitative space, by using secure internet connectivity and [digital] services.”

The MoJ is already working on pilot schemes at two prisons in which inmates are being equipped with laptops for use in their cells. At the moment, the devices are not connected to the internet and offer only “basic self-service” options for various prison services. But Read tells PublicTechnology he “really wants to get to a point where [prisoners] can start using the internet in a very controlled way, a very secure way, and in a way where it would be an incentive for good behaviour”.

The MoJ in numbers

Number of agencies and public bodies that work with the MoJ, including five executive agencies: HM Courts and Tribunals Service; HM Prison and Probation Service; the Legal Aid Agency; the Office of the Public Guardian; and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority

Number of prisons managed by the HM Prison and Probation Service, including 102 publicly run institutions

Number of employees across the MoJ and its various agencies, as of August 2018

UK prison population as of last month

Of course, for it to become a reality, Read acknowledges that digital and IT professionals will need politicians and policymakers to buy into this vision. But he believes that the potential rehabilitative impact of using technology in prisons is clear.

“Imagine being locked in a cell for 14 hours a day, and you know you’re being released in 10 months’ time,” Read says. “You could use that time just watching TV or staring at the wall – or you could use that time learning; improving your literacy, taking a vocational online course to learn some skills – using that time valuably.” 

He adds: “You could also eventually get to the point where, as an incentive, people could video call their family at the end of the night – they could read their children a bedtime story as an incentive for good behaviour. Imagine the effect on your attitude in prison, to be able to see your family every night, and prepare yourself for release. I think that could be huge. I think that could really change the way rehabilitation works.”

Other initiatives to put technology into prisoners’ hands are already underway. 

These include an ongoing rollout of “tens of thousands” of new in-cell phones in prions across the country. 

“If we want to transform about 150 services, some of which only have a few hundred transactions per year, recreating some of the elements of the service standard just wouldn’t work. We’re trying to get the balance of not watering down the service standard – which I strongly believe in – but also recognising that we need to fix this.”

Eight prisons have also installed communal “self-service kiosks” through which inmates can check their financial and phone credit accounts, as well as choose their meals or order items from the shop. Demonstrating the benefits of these automated kiosks when compared with the system they have replaced will help “build momentum” to support more ambitious or potentially controversial projects, Read hopes.

“Prisons that don’t have that use a piece of paper that prison officers have to go around and collect, then go and key [the details] into a system,” he says. “Then they have to go back and forth to the individual with any queries. And often they get it wrong, then that causes contention. So, we can really easily measure where we’ve put that in… how many person days [have been saved].”

In addition to the installation of new infrastructure and devices, Read also believes digital services could help support offenders both while they are incarcerated and after their release.

“For example, the number of prisoners who commit suicide per year is really high,” he says. “And we believe that, by putting in some interventionalist digital services, we may be able to help with that. We may be able to reach people using advanced analytics and services and technology in-cell to reach people.”

To help better support people after their release, the HM Prison and Probation Service “digital studio” in Sheffield also recently invited some ex-offenders to come in and talk to technologists about what support they would most value, and the challenges they currently face with existing services that digital could help solve. One of these visitors is now working to create an app that could help people on probation demonstrate their movements to their probation officers – as it is often difficult to communicate when appointments are changed at the last minute. 

‘Calling out digital naivety’
HMPPS is also seeking to work more closely with prison officers, some of whom have spent time on secondment at the digital studio.

“They have first-hand experience, and they can also call out that digital naivety you might get once in a while,” Read says. “They will point out the thing that you wouldn’t notice.”

Another key strand to the drive to reform prison technology will be providing the 45,000 people who work in prisons with improved hardware and software.  Read says that officers typically work with “pretty clunky old computers and most of their processes are very paper-based”.

“I think we can build just incredible levels of efficiency and make prison officers’ lives much easier if we can replace those clunky computers with something actually modern that works for them,” he adds. “We’ve started on that… [but] from an infrastructure side, we don’t have the funding for that at the moment. But we’re working with the department and we’ll be working with the Treasury on that.”

The digital chief and his colleagues have also begun efforts to improve the software with which prison officers work, as well as launching some small-scale pilots of new mobile devices.

“We have started breaking down the monolithic applications that [prison officers] have and replacing them with sort of GDS-style microservices that are making it much, much easier for staff to get the data they need,” Read says. “At the moment, a prison officer will be trying to work on the wings… but they don’t have any computers with them at all. So, if a prisoner asks a somewhat tricky question or if [an officer] needs to know information about a prisoner, they have to lock all the doors, go all the way back to the central hub, log onto this really old computer and hopefully find the bit of data that they need. Often, they don’t do that, or they just wait for a few hours to do that.”

He adds: “There is proper risk-and-safety information that we need to get into the officers’ hands. So, we have started building software for that, and we’re piloting mobile phones now in a couple of prisons. And, as you can imagine, they absolutely love it. We just need the money to do it at scale.”

Prison officers are not the only employees of the Ministry of Justice who are set to benefit from new computing technology. The department is nearing the end of its Future IT Sourcing engagement – an outsourced ‘tower’ integration contract fulfilled first by Lockheed Martin and, latterly, Leidos, which acquired the defence giant’s IT operation in 2016. The lifetime cost of FITS has been almost £3bn.

Read (pictured) says he wants to wrap up the delivery of hardware – networks, PCs, and phones – in the coming months and then begin a process of disaggregation, with a focus on working with SMEs or bringing services back in house.

When finished, the deployment of new PCs will encompass a total of 35,000 machines. The digital chief says that the project took as its starting point the comparatively straightforward portions of this rollout. 

“The best way to approach it is to [initially] go for the areas where a cookie-cutter approach does work,” he says. “So, we have groups of users who we roughly group into personas. So, if you take caseworkers, for example, they are a type of user who rely very heavily on line-of-business applications. There are nuances in that, but they roughly have the same user needs. If you start deploying those [machines] at scale, you build real momentum and you break the back of it. Then we’ve tried to drop in the edge cases and the really tricky groups as we go along, so that we don’t leave all the tough stuff to the end.”

One of the final groups to get their hands on new computers will be HM Prison and Probation Service staff shortly to move into new digs in Croydon. These workers will benefit from a more bespoke approach, Read says.

“They’re going to get the next iteration where we do offer them a choice of devices – so they can choose between a Windows device or a Mac device, and we’re introducing some Google Apps to go on Microsoft,” he adds. “We’re trying to get into the spirit of user choice and move away from one size fits all. But doing that at scale is really, really hard.”

Fixing the long tail of services
For all the work to improve the technology available to staff, Read says that the department’s progress in terms of “what you think of when you think of digital – making our services more accessible to citizens”, has been comparatively limited so far. 

Indeed, the MoJ is currently classified as only 16% digital by default. Half of its services still require users to print off a PDF and return it by post or fax, Read says. 

“The reason we’re in this situation is that we’re a department where we have a very long tail of services,” he adds. 

The department has around 150 services, many of which are highly specialised or low-volume. Read points to two examples from the service portfolio of HM Courts and Tribunals Service: the War Pensions and Armed Forces Compensation Tribunal service; and the Take a maritime or shipping dispute to the Admiralty Court service.

Neither of these are among the 35 services run by the MoJ or its related agencies currently have a service dashboard including in GOV.UK’s collection of performance data.

   Extent to which MoJ services are currently ‘digital by default’

   Number of new machines rolled out as part of an ongoing computing refresh

   Whole-life cost of the Future IT Sourcing programme, according to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority

Number of MoJ-based services – out of a total of about 150 – that have a performance dashboard on GOV.UK

There are many MoJ services that have not benefited from an approach to digitisation that has – quite rightly, according to Read – seen the Government Digital Service and others across Whitehall focus their energies on digitising the biggest and most frequently transacted services.

Many citizen services provided by the Ministry of Justice do not even conduct enough transactions each year to enable them to pass the GDS service standard assessment, he adds. The department is currently in talks with GDS about how best to “transform these at scale without necessarily having to take every single one through a full service standard assessment” – something that is not permitted under existing rules.

“If we want to transform about 150 services, some of which only have a few hundred transactions per year, recreating some of the elements of the service standard just wouldn’t work. Conducting enough user research would just make it unaffordable,” Read says. “Similarly, putting a full multidisciplinary team around this would be unaffordable. What we’re trying to get is the balance of not watering down the service standard – which I strongly believe in – but also [recognising that this service] isn’t good enough. and we need to fix this.”

In a bid to address its long tail of non-digitised services, MoJ developers have created a tool called the “form builder”. 

“It takes complex PDF forms and it extrapolates out of that and puts it into a GOV.UK step-by-step process – a sort of a wireframe – and does the coding for you in the background,” Read says. “And then our service designers can then design the service using that tool rather than having to go in and code it from scratch. It is a prototype at the moment, but we think we think that could help us transform some of these at scale.”

A number of other departments have shown an interest in the tool, including the Home Office, which has constructed a similar product, and Defra, which Read says has “a similar long-tail problem”. 

Early discussions with GDS have been constructive, he adds. The hope is that the central digital agency will provide resources to support further work on the form builder. In the long run, Read would like the tool to become part of the government-as-a-platform suite of tools that includes Notify, Pay, and Verify

“We’re still at early stages and we need to prove it by actually delivering some things before we go too far with the platform approach,” he adds. “I’d say GDS are positive at the moment, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to work more closely with them on it.”

“I want prisons and probation services to be digital first, and to be safer and more focused on rehabilitation. I think the opportunities of digital in that space are huge, and I’d like to leave a legacy of work that will take years to deliver, where we move much more towards a situation where, when you’re in prison, you can do useful things in your cell.”

Read’s first role in the civil service was at GDS, and he says he is “broadly happy” with the direction the organisation is now taking, adding that the MoJ digital team “works very well” with colleagues in the centre of government.

“GDS has changed and matured in the last few years. It’s focusing more on transformation and policy than core delivery. But I hope that GDS won’t loosen the spend controls because the civil service is elastic – it will snap back to its previous form if you don’t keep pushing,” he says. “I’m not saying that they are loosening it, but I would like GDS to keep standards high.”

Read adds: “I think (GDS director general) Kevin Cunnington has a really hard job, and we have short memories in government. We tend to forget the amount of pressure and backlash that GDS had in its early days. And now there’s lots of people lining up to criticise GDS – but I think it’s a hard job. I think you have to prioritise, and I think that’s what Kevin’s doing.”

Before joining the civil service, Read worked in a range of private-sector roles for organisations including Lloyds TSB and the Guardian. Having made the switch to working in government, he says that the public sector can sometimes be an “unbelievably frustrating” place to operate. 

“That said, this is the best job I’ve ever had by a country mile,” he adds. “You look around here at the MoJ, and we have the brightest, smartest, most brilliant technologists, and the most brilliant user researchers and service designers. All with this dedication and passion – it’s amazing. So, it can be really, really frustrating – but it’s also a reason to get up in the morning.”

Sam Trendall

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