Escaping the monotony of repeated failure

Richard Garside
Friday, 11 March 2022

How do we escape the monotony of repeated policy failure? How do we instead do something genuinely new and transformative?

Consider the Prisons Strategy White Paper, published in December 2021, in what already feels like a different time.

It promises more prisons, on top of existing plans to expand current capacity to around 100,000 places. “We need a pipeline of accommodation beyond our current build programme”, the White Paper states, “and we will begin preparatory work... to set ourselves up for future expansion”.

There’s nothing particularly new here. In modern times, relentless prison growth has been the monotonous background noise of prisons policy since the eve of the Second World War, as I explained in this Prison Service Journal article from a few years back.

Its effect has been to scupper progress on meaningful reform. Whatever the merits of a number of other proposals in the Prisons Strategy White Paper –  improving prison education, doing more to get ex-prisoners into jobs, and enhancing resettlement support, for instance – they will likely be negated by growing prisoner numbers.

A couple of weeks ago, Whitney Iles, Khatuna Tsintsadze and Charlie Weinberg wrote about “performance activism”, a symptom of a “lack of long-term thinking and political bravery”. With performance activism, we see “very little change on the ground”, while we are left “feeling good about our efforts”.

Current responses to initiatives such as the Prisons Strategy White Paper – talking up the perceived positives, while discretely shaking our heads about the obvious negatives – risks falling into this performance activism trap, I think.

Some might argue that this is what you get when too many grant funders favour short-term ‘impact’ over long-term ambition, and commissioning models reward nimble public relations, while punishing principled public challenge. I have much sympathy with such views.

But it also reflects the lack of long-term thinking that Whitney, Khatuna and Charlie wrote about, which all too-often leads to organisations falling into one of two, equally problematic, positions.

First, in seeking to influence the policy process, and to demonstrate impact, we can too readily accept the problem as defined by government, offering ‘solutions’ that tend towards reproducing in the present, and into future, the failed policies of the past. When this happens, we end up being defined in. We become part of the problem we claim we are trying to solve.

Alternatively, in seeking to escape the monotonous circularity of policy failure, we might too easily reject the grind of day-to-day influencing. This can result in powerful critiques and inspiring visions. But they are often critiques and visions easy to dismiss as utopian, and equally easy to ignore. This is the problem of being defined out. We stop having anything useful to contribute to the discussion.

What it means to navigate a course between these two, equally unhelpful, positions, to make possible an escape from the monotony of repeated failure, is something I and colleagues at the Centre are exploring, as we finalise a new strategy for the organisation.

In the context of the Prisons Strategy White Paper, it means, I think, developing coherent and credible alternatives to the seemingly relentless drive to ever more prisons, and charting a path to the world as we might wish it to be, while taking seriously the realities of the world as it is.