When, in 2016, the Secretary of State for Justice announced an investment of around £100m per year to provide 2,500 more frontline prison staff by 2018, the task might have seemed insurmountable. The aim was to free up prison officers’ time so they could offer one-to-one, regular support to prisoners under the Offender Management in Custody initiative.
But the backdrop of these optimistic proposals was an ongoing prison staffing crisis. Stringent staffing benchmarks had to be maintained while current vacancies, future vacancies and planned leavers had to be kept on top of.
Shared Services Connected Ltd (SSCL) – a joint venture between the Cabinet Office and Sopra Steria – took it on head first. Acting as the staffing provider to the Prison Service, it supported the goal from its inception by running recruitment on a shared service basis.
The team faced two key issues. On the one hand, recruitment was not happening quickly enough or on a sufficient scale, while on the other hand, retention was notably poor. Not only were potential employees put off by a complicated, lengthy application, but those who did secure a job often weren’t prepared for life in a prison and left after the short, sharp shock of reality.
Feedback suggested applicants could go through the entire application process without ever understanding what working in a prison environment would be like. Physical tours had proved a security risk and labour intensive; SSCL’s innovative solution was to help produce virtual reality tours, which brought prisons to life and genuinely engaged and enthused jobseekers.
A mass recruitment model was another problem, as it led to a process that felt impersonal and cold. The provider integrated videos, imagery and information about the specific prison being applied to, successfully injecting life into the process without compromising the need for volume.
SSCL was also able to streamline the process by hosting assessment days, which saved time and money, as applicants received immediate results – rather than waiting 10 days – and prison staff were not required to attend. New pre-employment checks also sped up the verification process by 53 per cent.
The overall result was a dynamic and streamlined recruitment process and in February 2018 the Ministry of Justice reported it was on target to recruit its extra 2,500 prison officers nine months ahead of the scheduled December 2018 end date. Meanwhile, more than 1,500 new recruits have been booked on future Prison Officer Entry Level Training courses, meaning HMPPS will be smashing its targets in the years to come.