Chartered Management Institute: In my opinion

Chartered Management Institute Companion Phil Wheatley argues that a clear strategy and active leadership are raising standards in the Prison Service.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In a climate of concern about law and order, our prisons are high on the media and political agenda. Coping with an expanding prison population - there are now more than 79,000 in custody, a rise of nearly 40% in the past 10 years - is a significant management challenge in its own right.

At the same time, we have been driving real performance improvements in Her Majesty's Prison Service. We have reduced escapes from secure prisons by 91%; driven down absconds from open prisons by 36%; and at the same time reduced the rate of suicide.

Improvements in security and safety have been matched by improvements designed to reduce the risk of re-offending. We have increased by a factor of 10 over the past decade the number of well-targeted offending-behaviour and drug treatment programmes. We've also increased and expanded basic skills education and provision of employment skills to help prisoners - many of whom failed or dropped out of final education - to become useful members of society.

All this has been done while delivering better controlled prisons in which riots are rare and drug use is reducing. This is good news for the country, though it is not always reflected in our press. There have, of course, been failures, because running prisons is difficult. Locking up dangerous and often violent offenders for long sentences (43% are serving over four years), many with drug-addiction and mental-health problems, will never be easy. To do that successfully while delivering baseline cashable efficiencies of £116 million on our core work over the past five years, in prisons that include a medieval castle, a former bomber base, stately homes and Victorian listed buildings, is highly complex.

Our success has flowed from a clear and consistent strategy: we give our governors clarity about what matters. The basic message stresses the importance of security, order and treating prisoners decently, while ensuring the public are protected and that risks of re-offending are reduced. We count what is important and, just as seriously, we measure the quality.

A prison's success is assessed through a combination of a weighted scorecard, internal audit, the conclusions of the independent inspectorate and regular management visits. We publish our conclusions about prisons internally and externally. This system is driven by clear line management of prisons with high-quality operational managers holding governors to account.

At the same time, we have cut governors free and allowed them to innovate and manage rather than relying on bureaucratic prescription and central control. Governors manage multi-million pound budgets (the biggest exceed £30 million), hire and fire their own staff and operate as major players in their areas, forming partnerships with other local agencies and the voluntary sector to ensure that their prisons deliver and contribute to the wider crime-reduction agenda.

Our experience and research show that our most successful prisons have the most motivated and engaged staff but not necessarily the easiest tasks or the most resources. The governor's role is key. Being a good manager who takes the right decisions is essential, but not enough. The best governors are truly inspiring leaders.

Leadership in a prison context is challenging. Most staff and many prisoners have long prison careers. What happens on the landings of a prison is nearly always visible. Small failings or inconsistencies are easily spotted and spread like wildfire round staff and prisoners.

Prisons can also be frightening places and events that threaten security and order have to be handled quickly and effectively. So leadership has to be determined, consistent and visible, and leaders must demonstrate personal integrity and resilience under pressure. Good governors can walk the prison landings and deal confidently with staff and prisoners, acting as a model for others. They must know exactly how their establishment works and demonstrate sure-footed operational decision-making under pressure.

Our increasing success is a result of getting the best people into these key governing roles with the right skills and knowledge. We help our managers to develop into governors by providing support and training, giving them career paths that allow them to gain experience and develop skills before moving them into more challenging posts. As a result, we now have a cadre of governors who match the exacting job description, and we are succeeding in recruiting people from a wide variety of backgrounds who we confidently expect to make governors in the future.

We do not rely on formal qualifications; we look to use a wide variety of routes to the top, from officers who progress through the system to fast-stream (mainly young graduate entry) and career-change recruits coming into middle management. The key to promotion is to demonstrate success and the ability to create change. The determination to carry on creating change and seeking improvement is essential at all levels of management in prisons. The enemy of success is complacency and, although as a prison service we are doing better, there is still much more to do.

CV Phil Wheatley graduated in law in 1969 and joined the Prison Service as an officer. He worked in a variety of prisons before becoming governor of Hull Prison in 1986. In 1990, he moved to headquarters and held a variety of key operational management jobs. In 2003 he was appointed director general, the first to have officer experience.


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