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Perspectives of arts organisations on the commissioning of prison-based arts projects through the Dynamic Purchasing System

Perspectives of arts organisations on the commissioning of prison-based arts projects through the Dynamic Purchasing System

Perspectives of arts organisations on the commissioning of prison-based arts projects through the Dynamic Purchasing System

This blog has been guest written by three leaders of small specialist arts organisations that work in prisons in England and Wales 

The shift from partnership working and collaboration with prisons, to one of the procurement of a provider, has been a huge challenge for many smaller arts organisations. In its current form, the Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) leaves no scope for innovation, and we are losing the breadth and range of arts interventions and creative projects that the sector has historically been proud of. Unfortunately, for several reasons, a number of arts organisations have concluded that it is not worthwhile to apply.  

The DPS process negates direct communication and negotiation, not just about the problem or challenge the prison is facing, but also about the range of potential ways in which the arts organisation could provide a specifically designed project to address the issue. Years of experience tells us that successful arts and creative projects need to be delivered in partnership and collaboration with the establishment and prison staff to be most effective. If delivered well, they can humanise the prison environment, offer essential life skills, develop empathy, offer moments of release and self-expression, raise aspirations and possibilities and provide a vehicle for communicating the experiences of imprisonment with prisoners families and the broader community. 

The DPS, whether intentionally or not, has designed partnership and collaboration out and replaced it with a transactional system of procurement. Partnership and collaboration require dialogue between the partners, something which is not possible via the DPS’ clunky and public message system. Ongoing conversation is required to run a successful arts project, to understand the prison’s needs, the rationale for why they think an arts project will be a good fit for their prison, how they see it integrating with their wider regime, the specific cohort they wish to target for the project (and why), and who will be responsible on an operational level to ensure the right people are involved.  

This can only happen through conversations with experts at delivering these sorts of projects and it is through this dialogue that truly innovative and creative projects are devised and designed. Many of the most successful projects over the years, which are now seen as standard, have come about through conversation with prison staff and governors. The whole arts in criminal justice sector is a great example, but there are other areas of practice which started off as tiny seeds of ideas that have since become mainstream – such as restorative justice models and integrating people with lived experience.  

The DPS assumes that those procuring are aware of the full range of potential projects/offers that might exist in the marketplace, yet the marketplace isn’t nuanced enough for providers to articulate the range of projects they could potentially offer. Historically, prisons used to call organisations, discuss what they needed, get thoughts and ideas from the organisation they were contacting and then book the projects – a very simple process. The procurement process has necessitated prisons putting project requirements out without any real sense of the budget that might require, the number of people that could realistically be worked with, and over what sort of timeframe the project may work, essentially bypassing the years and years of experience that organisations have built up around effective practice. 

Many recent projects have been submitted by commissioners with very unrealistic indicative budgets for the scale and type of project they are hoping to commission. This either suggests that they are hoping that a provider will cover the rest of the cost themselves, potentially through other funding sources, or they are looking for someone to deliver at such a low financial rate that it could ultimately damage the sector. If the former, this option is no longer available as funders won’t offer to fund something an organisation may not win the bid for. If the latter, driving down costs will have an inevitable impact on the training of people delivering the programmes, the supervision and management of projects and ultimately, the quality of the work

Smaller organisations who don’t have large commissioning/tendering teams have to choose very carefully which tenders to bid for. Bidding is time-consuming and takes up a considerable amount of very limited resource. The bid writing process is the same for 6 one off evening classes as it is for more complex yearlong projects which will mean small organisations who have the skills and expertise but lack capacity and don’t have a bid writing team, are further diverted away from applying.   

We have noticed a concerning drift towards expecting arts practitioners to carry out the duties of prison staff.  Expectations are placed on the supplier to hold keys, manage referrals, and run sessions with no explicit staff support. Many arts-based projects are designed to work with specific cohorts of prisoners (violence reduction, suicide and self-harm risks, those close to release etc) and it is essential that a suitable referral process, suitability check and risk assessment is carried out by prison staff who know their population, rather than by an arts organisation with no long-term experience of the individuals. In some circumstances, an open prison or a prison where you have been working consistently for a long period of time, there is an argument to be had about arts organisations working more independently and without prison staff being present, but this needs to be part of an ongoing conversation and dialogue and not something which is assumed as the default. We know how important it can be to have officers present during sessions should things flare up. However, this issue is about so much more than safety and security (of both our staff and the participants). One of the great benefits that the arts can bring to a prison is the partnership working between prison staff, arts organisations, and the participants. With the current staffing shortages in prisons, establishments want interventions where partners can come in, deliver and leave without demanding anything from the prison. This is counterproductive to success, as without any briefing and exchange, the opportunity for the project to have real impact is radically reduced.   

There is also concern over the short-term nature of the contracts offered on DPS. The current MoJ/DPS pipeline lists contracts from two months to twelve months, with a significant number being at the lower end of the scale. Smaller organisations can’t strategically plan within such tight timeframes, not knowing when the contract may appear and/or whether there is any likelihood of it being recommissioned, should they even win it. Several potential tenders placed on DPS in Autumn 2022 had deadlines in late November/early December for projects starting in January to March. There is no way, unless an organisation has a large amount of flexible funding, that these projects can be turned around in this timeframe, which could lead to organisations who wish to get their prison work back to the level of pre DPS, cutting their costs to give themselves a better chance of winning, or leave it to the larger suppliers who can offset those costs, therefore leaving smaller organisations out in the cold.  All these factors have the knock-on implications for quality, efficacy and ethical working. Driving down costs can be achieved by employing students/interns/recent graduates and offering them ‘opportunities’ to get into the sector. But as a sector, we need to continue to ensure that the work being delivered continues to be of the high and safe standards it has always been. 

Historically arts in criminal justice work has always followed a mixed funding model which saw prisons get the highest quality arts projects for a small percentage of what they actually cost; the balance being supported by long term funders of the ACJ organisations. Prisons are now responsible for paying for the whole project, risking of all their budget being spent quickly with smaller numbers of prisoners benefitting. 

Short term funding creates short term projects with short term results and limits the scope and potential success of partnership working between organisations and establishments. The work is most effective when embedded and this requires strong relationships to be built. If you are unable to have conversations or if you know that in a few months the project will lose its contract, it means it’s just an add on.  

It was documented at the outset that MoJ wanted small and medium-sized organisations  to apply for contracts, recognising all the amazing work which has been valued for so long by prisons and prisoners. However so much of the way the DPS currently works goes against this. We would welcome discussions as to how the DPS could be made more flexible, to allow conversations and discussions to achieve the best possible project design, and to have the opportunity to revert to a co-funding model, which over the longer term would save prisons money and ensure quality control and safety. If these things are not addressed then what might the risk be to the prisons, and the outcomes for people in prison, if arts organisations are pushed out of the system?