Michael Gove and the future of electronic monitoring

Criminal justice reformers should be influencing the development of electronic monitoring, argues Professor Mike Nellis, rather than leaving it to right-leaning think tanks

By: 
Professor Mike Nellis
Date: 
Friday, 11 March, 2016

The hubristically named 'New World' electronic montoring (EM) strategy, devised by the Conservative-led Coalition Government back in 2012, was a commercial, technological and penal fiasco and there is nothing to be regretted about its passing. If, that is, it has passed. We cannot yet be certain of this.

Informed by Policy Exchange and led by Chris Grayling, it had in mind to have 75,000 people per day on GPS tracking, and to dispense with radio frequency EM curfews. Nonetheless, what the plan revealed, once the secrecy surrounding it was stripped away, was a distinctively market-driven vision of large-scale high-tech crime control, a Silicon Valley-style ‘disruptive innovation’.

It was intended to transform the community supervision of offenders in England and Wales, even more so than the privatisation of the probation service, to which it had been, from the outset, a complementary, and possibly more important element in the Transforming Rehabilitation programme.

It had all been due to start in mid-2015. Nothing happened. The fact that it failed, in Grayling’s iteration at least, serves to confirm the idea that abstract, reified visions of neoliberal practice can not be implemented without viable institutional structures and networks which are capable of carrying them.

The complicated, overcentralised, four lot business model on which the vision was premised was never fit for purpose, as both Policy Exchange and Reform – think tanks deeply sympathetic to government – had already pointed out. The delayed, expensive search for a new bespoke tag, which combined GPS and radio frequency capabilities, was misconceived, when serviceable devices and software were already available on the market.

Market-friendly ministers

The new Justice Minister, Michael Gove, is no less market-friendly in outlook than his predecessor, and is indeed close to Policy Exchange. He was its founding chair back in 2002.

He has already had to clear up a number of Grayling’s policy disasters, and may well have more talent for finessing an EM implementation process. Like Grayling, he is a committed marketiser, an ambitious disrupter of public sector provision, and a confirmed Brexiteer unlikely to be receptive to cautious European models of EM use. He may also be more open to very punitive American models.

Crucially in this context, just like Grayling, he is hostile to attempting strategic reductions in the size of the prison population. Whatever GPS tracking programmes are for, they won’t be to help with that. Contrary to the techno-utopian hopes of some early US champions of EM – and Tom Stacey in England – it is probation services that are likely to be undermined by its expansion, not imprisonment.

Marshaling an evidence-base, as is now promised, consulting more with relevant interests and establishing GPS pilots are all sensible in themselves. They may also be means by which the Ministry of Justice can regain lost legitimacy in this area of policy-making.

Nonetheless, any sign of continuing commitment to an all-GPS system, or the bulk monitoring of 75,000 offenders per day will be evidence that commercial-technological factors, rather than penal factors, are still driving the vision and implementation strategy. This must be contested.

The challenge for penal reformers

But by whom? The temporary implementation hiatus in EM policy – and the hindsight about the scale of disruption that Grayling had been planning – creates a space in which England’s hitherto aloof penal reform bodies can and must reconsider their strategic position on EM in England and Wales. They need to be more than simply reactive to an approach they would rather wish away.

Such groups need to engage in constructive resistance, on the understanding that EM is now such an ordinary and integral element in a digitally connected world – a form of ‘coerced connectedness’ – that it is neither going away nor growing less important.

It is actually astonishing that debate on EM has been dominated by right wing voices like Policy Exchange and Reform. Their reports do contain, amidst some utter wrongheadedness, a number of sensible practical recommendations. But they have colonized the ground that the Howard League, the Prison Reform Trust and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies might otherwise have occupied.

Historically, and from experience, penal reformers know, more than most, that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. For want of an informed understanding of the pervasive digital technoculture in which EM is indelibly rooted, they have come close to letting this happen.

Penal reformers need to enter the EM debate with – to use a somewhat passé term – a ‘hacker ethic’ in mind. With a sense that EM technologies are not solely owned by government, that they can be appropriated and deployed to better, more creative ends than those who control the dominant narratives about them have thus far been prepared to concede.

The future of electronic monitoring

Timely European Union-funded research by Professor Anthea Hucklesby and colleagues has highlighted the more creative and varied ways in which EM has been used in Europe, especially when it is integrated within probation services, as (unlike England and Wales) it mostly has been.

It is precisely because the various modalities of EM can – among other things – add a flexible element of control to community supervision that it is capable of enabling viable alternatives to custody, perhaps even supporting community justice. The fact that Gove has already decided not to exploit this strategic aspect of it is a massive own goal on his part, and an open one for penal reformers if they could just become more open-minded about the creative, niche ways in which EM could be used.

The challenge for penal reform bodies is pressing, because as Hucklesby and colleagues have discerned, in relation to Europe as a whole, a new wave of enthusiasm for EM seems imminent. Indeed it may already be underway. On past evidence, England and Wales will wish to be at the fore.

Hucklesby herself has quite aptly likened this upcoming wave to the opening of Pandora’s Box, but a more socio-technical account can be given of what is stirring below the surface, outside the penal field. Over the past two years the Bank of America, the Bank of England, the McKinstry Consultancy, the World Economic Forum and sundry economic and technological commentators have been forecasting a vast expansion of automation and robotics in global businesses. These will have far-reaching consequences for many middle class occupations.

Unlike the past, where mostly blue collar work was affected, it will be legal and welfare professions, particularly those whose working practices and processes have become so standardized that they can readily be accommodated by smart machines, that will be affected.

Let’s speculate that probation might be one of them. Many aspects of EM systems are already automated, driven by algorithms. While there is no inexorably mechanistic relationship between ‘the rise of the robots’ and EM as such, it will give further symbolic and practical momentum to ‘non-human’ approaches to increasing efficiency in and control over a range of business and administrative processes.

Coupled with that, many EM manufacturers are nested in and overlap with the same digital ecosystems and research and investment networks, and the same corporate futurist visions from which automation and robotics are arising. They will be emboldened by the same trends, which efficiency-seeking governments will facilitate and align with in greater or lesser degree.

It is tempting, in retrospect, to see Chris Grayling’s efforts at simultaneously upgrading EM and downgrading probation from 2012 onwards as a local, English precursor of these broader global developments.

They won’t play out in the same way in all countries. In respect of EM there will be greater or lesser degrees of modulation and resistance from established penal interests. But probation services and penal reform bodies need to become much more adept at shaping how monitoring technologies are used, rather than simply opposing the prevailing versions of them.

It is, in my view, impossible to resist EM in its entirety. It is also not impossible to sometimes use it wisely. But it may well be possible to resist the excess of it that Grayling’s disruptive ‘New World’ represented.

Grayling was initially confident that his would be the world’s first mass upgrade from radio frequency to GPS. Such were the delays (largely of his own making) that New Zealand got in first in 2014, proving if nothing else that his ambition was not wholly idiosyncratic.

In England, penal reform bodies need to abandon their lingering belief that EM is still a discrete and peripheral intervention that can be wished away or tamed by evidence, and recognize that it does – for better or worse – have the capacity to destabilize existing penal arrangements.


Mike Nellis is Emeritus Professor of Criminal and Community Justice at the University of Strathclyde and editor of the Journal of Offender Monitoring.