Think long-term, give autonomy but coordinate, experiment but evaluate – Lord Warner on the success of the Youth Justice Board

Stephen Boucher – Lord Warner, can you please tell us a bit about yourself first and how you became involved with the Youth Justice Board?

I’m a slightly unusual person, I’ve done lots of different jobs in different spheres, health, justice, management under Ms Thatcher, I’m not a bog standard person. So I’ve been in the reform game in the public Service with others, but reforming the Public Service in the UK is extremely difficult. You have to capture a wind which is going your way. I’ve tried to sail a boat, and if you don’t have wind, it’s difficult. You need political enthusiasm in any sector. Ms Thatcher introduced the idea that the public sector should better manage resources. She introduced the idea that you don’t just give the public sector much more money, but you ask it to do something different, that you increase productivity and usefulness to get more money. And that kind of culture started with her. She got a lot of it wrong, but there was a mood music about change. That also happened under Blair. When Thatcher left, the enthusiasm dropped, and Blair ran again with it. Cameron wasn’t enthusiastic. In the UK it’s difficult to have innovation if there’s resistance.

Stephen Boucher – Can you tell us how the Youth Justice Board originated?

Lord Warner – The Youth Justice Board came out of another social context. Before the 1997 election there was a concern about growing youth crime, there was a political debate about it, in the papers, so the political class got engaged with this before the 1997 election. All the parties had to have some ideas. One idea from the political right was: “put them in jail, teach them hard lessons”, etc. Blair was persuaded that you didn’t have to follow the right to this hard position, but we had to have a policy with some tough edges. I and other enthusiasts invented a new youth justice system. But we were just responding to a public and political mood.

I had a bit of background, I’d been a director of social services, I’d worked on it a bit. I’d worked out that most of these kids who were offending had a multiplicity of problems and that there wasn’t a silver bullet of the “if you do this it’ll work” kind, and that putting them in prison would be a better solution. The more you analysed their lives, the more you realised that their lives were chaotic. The public was concerned about the persistent offenders, mugging, burglaries, there was some violence. A lot of it though was property crime, graffiti, wrecking local communities. They’d tear down telephone boxes, do public damage, mill around in gangs, smoke weed, drink, that kind of behaviour. Many of them were persistent. And if the police arrested them, they took no notice. The public response to the problem was totally inadequate.

“Innovation only starts if you have clarity about what the problem is.”

When you profiled these kids, the family life was dysfunctional, a disproportionally large proportion were black, with an absence of male role models, the police didn’t know what to do with them once they arrested them. Many of them had no jobs, some were highly disturbed, many were dyslexic, they couldn’t read. There was a high focus in the ages 13-17, the vast number were nearly all boys. So the starting point was “what’s the problem”. Innovation only starts if you have clarity about what the problem is.

Stephen Boucher – Where did you start In this difficult context?

Lord Warner – The public wanted them removed, it was with the conservatives, “get them out of our hair”, “lock them up”. So we had to get people who were in the system on our side, the cops, the courts… If they didn’t buy into doing something different, we wouldn’t have gotten very far. This was the other bit of innovation: if you have a problem, who are the decision makers you got to get to change. We had to get the cops and the courts on side. But these were also local crimes. So what were the local politicians, authorities doing? Answer: not very much. These kids were usually excluded from school. Which was the worst thing you could do, set them loose on the street. You had to tackle the situation at home. We had to find solutions to all these problems. The only way was to get all the services to cooperate.

When we started on all this in the mid 1990s, no one owned the problem. When you’re in social policy, when there’s a social problem, everyone’s interested, but no one owns it, so you have to find a way for people to own it. This led to the Young Offending Teams.

Stephen Boucher – How did you get these different organisations to work together?

Lord Warner – That meant we needed leverage to get people to cooperate. To do that, you can set an agenda by using legislation that makes it very clear that parliament expects you to act in a certain way. What was very clear was that this was so new and different, without drive from the centre, these new institutions wouldn’t happen.

This didn’t mean we would micromanage from the center, but you need a centre. The Youth Center Board acted as manager, would carry out research, would invest in new approaches. If people came up with a good new idea, we would pilot it and show whether it worked. It was a mixture of local and central initiatives. So we worked on two fronts: at local and central level. We were quite directive at the beginning with the YOB, but we would work very hard to get local initiatives. In particular, the courts said “you don’t have proper programmes”. So we were trying to create a dialogue. We had to hold off. It helped that I was personally backed by Blair and the Home Secretary. I had a lot of clout. When people started saying “we don’t like you doing this”, I would say “why don’t you come with me to talke about it with the Prime Minister…”.

“If people came up with a good new idea, we would pilot it and show whether it worked. It was a mixture of local and central initiatives.”

Stephen Boucher – How did you counter dominant thinking?

Lord Warner – Having a good idea on its own was not enough. Lots of things fail in the UK because there is no political buy in. There’s also mad ideas. Very often politicians come in with totally ill sorted-out ideas.

Before the Youth Justice Board, most of the political discourse was dominated by conservative home secretaries’ mantra that “prison works”. But there was no evidence base, quite the reverse, but it captured the politicians’ and to some extent the public mood.

One of the problems we continue to have: how to you create enough space and enough time for something to work? We had a good run at it because Blair continued to win for 10 years, so we had a situation in which it became known as something the Prime Minister kept supporting, so the idea could take root.

youth justice board Lord Warner creativity politics

Stephen Boucher – Where do we stand today?

Lord Warner – There are two key themes: this reform is now 20 years old, the Youth Offending Teams have survived as an idea, and the number of kids locked up has gone from 3 500 under 18 year olds to now about 900. So we’ve driven down these numbers, we’ve introduced parenting classes and put a lot of emphasis on those. We introduced restorative justice: we’d put kids, provided the victims were willing, in front of the victims and make them realise the damage they’d done. It was more tough love than disengagement.

We had to have some tough stuff in it. We’d never gotten away with it politically otherwise. So we invested in the Detention training order: if you had a year sentence, you spent only 6 months in custody, and the other 6 months in the community. We were helped by technology: one of the ways was to use tagging. This really started at the end of the 1990s. Thanks to technology, without putting people in prison, you could control them in the communities. We used tagging as a tough option, it actually contained these kids, and that enabled us to sell the idea of community sentences. But in fact that’s largely fallen away, it was a staging move.

When we started restorative justice it was seen as a soft option, but the kids found explaining in front of people in some ways harder than jail, to sit in front of someone they’d burgled and understand the grief that they’d caused. Eventually this was seen as a tough thing for the kids to do.

We also introduced the idea of community payback. We resisted the idea of presenting them as community projects (as in painting community centres). The right said that when doing community projects, the kids should wear visible jackets, etc. We stopped that nonsense with Blair. But we always had to watch our flank on the right. But we would not have gotten away with this without the drive from the top. I would’ve been steamrolled.

They’ve now bought in to the YJB. The people who were quite hostile were the civil servants. You should never underestimate in Britain the resistance of the civil service to change. They are not natural innovators. They are status quo people. The drive for change usually comes, misguided or otherwise, either from external forces or from politicians. In the UK, some of the politicians’ ideas for change are barmy, but not all, and you cannot rely for the most part, with individual exception, on the civil service to bring change.

They see themselves often as representatives of client groups outside in the society, for example the department for business tends to be captured by the big corporations. The health service tends to be captured by the doctors and other health professions. I worked a lot in the health service. We’re in the middle of a massive fight at the moment, doctors and nurses like working in something like a hospital, so the idea that you should do more outside this institution is an alien concept for them. Traditionally, the bureaucracy has tended to advise the ministers “you will have doctors against you”, which is true, the doctors don’t want change to their hospital practices. Until recently, it’s politicians who changed education. The department of education saw themselves as defending the teachers, on the whole a pretty conservative bunch.

The change agents are the politicians, because they’re often in a hurry. So they want to leave their mark. But the shorter their term of office, the more the bureaucracy says “this guy is not going to be around for very long, so let’s keep the ship steady”. If you look back on big changes in British government, there have been two big change agents: Thatcher and Blair, because they came to office with big majorities and a clear mandate to do something different. Those two prime ministers produced big cultural changes, Thatcher shook up the bureaucracy, and Blair. I’ve been around the public sector for over 50 years. I’ve seen it now.

Brexit comes as a massive shock to the British bureaucracy, but before Brexit, they’ve struggled with the whole idea of technology to change the idea of the relation of the state with the citizen. Governments have to bring in people from the outside

For instance, the inland revenue and the whole matter of filling in your tax online, and the relation being online rather than talking to a human being, they simply didn’t have the skill set to envision and execute. On all bit projects, unless they’ve been able to find competent directors from outside they’ve been unable to implement.

You have a skills issue on innovation, in the British bureaucracy it’s got worse, when governments clamped down on pay rates of civil servants. There’s a saying in English: “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. It’s true. Many of the things we ask people to do, if you want change, in a time of rapid technological change, are complex and difficult. The private sector is much more realistic about what it’ll pay for these skills. We have these silly rules, for instance the one that Cameron introduced that you can’t pay a civil servant more than the Prime Minister. Then you can only pay people on contracts from outside, because the public sector people are just not paid enough. This problem has got worse.

I was thinking, preparing for this conversation, “Would I be able to introduce the YOB today?”. There wouldn’t be the attention span to back the reforms today. Big infrastructure changes are very difficult to do in this country. For instance, the Olympics was driven by external people, as well as the HS2 project, the high speed rail link. It’s the same: this is why the bureaucracy is nervous, they don’t have the skill sets even to manage the contracts. You have real problems in an era of high technology.

Stephen Boucher – When you say there wouldn’t be the attention span, what do you mean exactly?

Lord Warner – I needed time to prove this could work. This was a policy, which was owned by Blair. Labour when it won the election in 1997 put a card the size of a business card in every household with 5 pledges, personally signed by Tony Blair. One was “to tackle the problem of persistent offenders”, so it was a pledge, and a personal one. So he didn’t just say it, he continued to back it. It hasn’t been done since. Even if he had doubts about it, when he thought I was being too 1960s liberal about it, because he was concerned about being outflanked by the right in seeming tough.

I’ve been battling to defend the principles of the YOB in successive governments to apply the same lessons to the 18-21 year olds who continue to be a problem. Our prisons are continuing to be stuffed with them. In prison they mix with hardened criminals and they become better criminals. But no one is interested in taking the lessons to the other age group, but they need the same things: tackling unemployment, education issues, the emotional issues, despite the evidence that you can tackle these and you don’t need to lock them up. But no one is ready to put their reputation on the line.

Cameron to his credit backed a “troubled families programme” but it’s being rubbished in the media, but it’s only been given 4 or 5 years. You don’t change the structure around families in such a period of time. It’s a 10-15 year problem. I feel I got lucky, I was allowed to tackle a complex social problem with political support and enough time to bed it in with the bureaucracy, the legislation, and the way of working with people at the local level. If you don’t give programmes long enough to work, you’re going to fail.

We have in this country done a number of good pilot schemes in social programmes, but we don’t take them to scale. There’s a kind of unwillingness to bring to scale and take to a wider area. It’s not there aren’t innovators, but they never get their hands on the levers of power.

Stephen Boucher – How to lower the risks?

Lord Warner – I think it’s also a question of whether they achieve buy-in from the people in the service areas. A good example of this is another change that has survived in education. It’s the idea of academy school: they gave much more freedom to the head teachers and took out of control of the local authorities. Academy schools have had a mixed start. They were started relatively modestly by Blair, but have now proved to be a success. There have been some problems. They have now in this country many more academy schools than schools run by local authorities. That was really started in a modest number and allowed to take roots, and then it became bipartisan politically. It has enough appeal in it not to become a political football. And there was an educational inspectorate, external force to measure the performance. Academy schools came out of a kind of pilot.

If you look hard enough, you find initiatives. It’s really whether there’s political backing whether they’re allowed to work. The next big idea in this country – which may be alien for France – is the whole business of developing autonomy and taking money down to the regional level to people in the cities, trying to move more autonomy away from the centre to let local and regional people to solve the difficult problems, with a degree of experimentation. This has only just started under the last 3-4 years, under austerity, with the major cities saying “if you want us to do all these tough things, you have to give us more freedom”.

Out of austerity “if we have to do these tough decisions, if we have to do them in London and impose it’s not going to happen. Politicians are starting to learn, if you have these difficult financial decisions, on this or that service, there’s not much political mileage, why don’t we get rid of them”, “let’s get this stuff off our desks”. So it’s a mix of good and bad reasons.

What that will do is allow much more experimentation and innovation. Because it’s highly unlikely that the people in Manchester will take the same decision as people in a rural community. What you will start to see is more innovation, stemming from a move to devolution sparked by constraints.

“Devolution looks to me like an idea whose time has come.”

I’m on the advisory council of a think tank, called Reform. Some of the work on trying to spot innovation is coming out of think tanks. Occasionally it’s universities. Nearly all raise their money from the private sector, even the left-of-centre ones. People are trying to generate and spot ideas. Think tanks are having a good time at the moment. Devolution to cities came largely out of Res Publica. There are 7 or 8 think tanks recently started, mainly in the political centre and on the centre right. There’s one or 2 left of centre. A lot of the thinking around reform of public services is dealing with the problems of authority. Those thinking through what you’re trying to do are coming from the political centre and the centre right. The left of centre has got very little ideas on how to deal with the scarcity of resources and other key issues.

Stephen Boucher – I would say there are no ideas coming from any side at the moment in France! It’s only the extremes that are seen as innovating, by default.

Lord Warner – The extremes are powerful but have contributed nothing in terms of ideas. There is also a broad movement of the citizens wanting to be consulted more and have more say, and that’s being quite well received by the politicians, for good and bad reasons. The left is now following. The extreme left has always been rather patronising. I come from the left, but they’ve always tried to be “good to people” rather than asking people which way they would like good to be done to them. The Left has not been good in involving citizens.

What has taken hold across the political spectrum is that you have got to consult people more about political services. That’s not a political given. There as good deal of scepticism whether indeed public bodies directed from the centre are going to be agents of change. Devolution looks to me like an idea whose time has come, because it fits in more with decision by groups at local level. Driving social change form the centre is dying on its feet.

Today I would’ve gotten away with Youth Offending Teams, even the police, that was traditionally not cooperative with other agencies, have had a lifetime change. They have realised that they can’t police communities without the cooperation of other agencies. It’s a cultural shift between agencies, which have traditionally competed. Now they are more in the mood to cooperate and share resources.

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