Vision is important in politics. The capacity to focus on the bigger picture, look beyond short-term policy distractions - famously dismissed by George Bush Senior as 'the vision thing' - is important for any government. Margaret Thatcher had vision in spades, as did Tony Blair. John Major had it less. Gordon Brown may have had a vision. He had great difficulties in explaining what it was. His successor Ed Miliband has much the same problem.
According to recent reports the business secretary Vince Cable fears that the coalition lacks 'a compelling vision of where the country is heading beyond sorting out the fiscal mess; and a clear and confident message about how we will earn our living in the future'.
In contrast, on prisons policy it does appear to have one. It's called the 'rehabilitation revolution'. In an interesting recent speech at the Social Market Foundation (downloadable above), Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt explained it in greater detail.
Is it clear what this vision is and how it will operate? Yes and no. The 'core policy problem', Mr Blunt said, is that the current system does not do enough to rehabilitate prisoners.
The answer to this problem is payment by results. Through this mechanism providers will be given a clear financial incentive to hit targets. If they miss the targets they miss out on some payments. Payment by results also encourages providers to reduce or control costs, on the basis that they keep some or all of the savings they make.
Over recent months the government has been busy rolling out payment by results pilots. There are four prisons pilots, at Doncaster, Leeds, High Down and Peterborough, the last of these set up by Labour. Wales and Staffordshire and the West Midlands are running community-based payment by results pilots.
Six pilots in London and Manchester are exploring ways of using payment by results mechanisms to reduce demands on the courts. There are also four youth justice pilots and two 'innovation pilots' (under which providers are being asked to come up with proposed projects). The Ministry of Justice is also working with other departments on so-called 'co-commissioning'.
Mr Blunt was also refreshingly candid about their approach to payment by results. The coalition were clear that it was the right approach, he said. They did not yet know how best to make payment by results happen. That was the point of the pilots.
When Mr Blunt was asked about how practice would alter as a result of payment by results he was rather less clear. The 'revolution' in the rehabilitation revolution, it seems, is more in the financing of service delivery than in the details of practice. Indeed Mr Blunt, along with a number of the other speakers, made it clear that under the rehabilitation revolution it is the results that count, not how those results are achieved. The later question was really one for providers, not government or commissioners.
The problem with dismissing the 'how' question is that it makes it rather more difficult to answer the 'why' question: why certain interventions work while others fail. But if you can't answer the why question it also makes it far more difficult to replicate effective services.
This must be a key threat of the payment by results approach: a clutch of big providers, each delivering their own bespoke and commercially confidential set of interventions, neither sharing their experience nor allowing the rest of us to learn from it.
This article, by our director Richard Garside, was first published on Works for Freedom, our website supporting practice that empowers criminal justice users and clients and transforms their lives for the better.