A short spell behind bars highlights the importance of using 'joined up' systems

For government CIO Ian Watmore, a recent visit to prison brought home the significance of breaking down the silos in which public sector data is held

You may think one of Her Majesty's Prisons an appropriate place for me, but I recently made my first prison visit (honest) when going to Wormwood Scrubs to understand better how IT could support the new National Offender Management Service (NOMS).

It was, of course, pretty grim mentally, but relatively well maintained physically. I was allowed to wander among the inmates and they were happy to talk.

Virtually every cell is shared, with a high turnover of cellmates. Over 70% of the inmates have a drug-related problem on entry to the prison, and consequently there is a very busy medical centre. Rules are necessarily strict and we visited an eerily silent privilege-free area for those who break them or who are especially dangerous.

The Governor and his team were, frankly, remarkable. For example, a male nurse we met had gone to extraordinary lengths to create an area of calm for inmates with anger management problems to "chill out" in before doing themselves or others damage.

So what did I conclude from an IT perspective? First, technology was of limited security use beyond CCTV, but it was administratively crucial, given the maximum capacity to which the prison operates and the high turnover of inmates. But the greatest benefit will come from "joining up" offender management solutions which lead to re-integration into the community.

EDS has built an excellent system for offender profiling and planning. The Offender Assessment System, known as OASys, is being deployed between the Prison and Probation services.

Fundamentally a risk and needs assessment tool, OASys collects and analyses information to gauge the likelihood of an offender being reconvicted and the risk of harm he presents. If an offender's assessment identifies any risk factors, OASys will proactively trigger the appropriate action with a practitioner. This technology will, in turn, reduce reconviction rates, and ultimately risk to the public.

OASys will support the implementation of the NOMS. This has moved NOMS to demand more extensive internet access, linkage to other agencies' systems, such as housing, employment, social services, and so on.

The prison will need the new NHS systems too, as the prison health services will be NHS - rather than NOMS - provided in future. Also the St Mungo's volunteers, who help with resettlement into society and drug addiction, are only able to get access to prison systems from within the prison walls, such systems not accessible by "intermediaries" from outside.

This visit was obviously a life experience for me, but it also brought home the importance of the work we are doing to define an IT strategy for government. When we talk about "citizen-centred" government, we don't just mean convenient and easy to use consumer services over the web.

We also mean joined-up solutions to deliver citizen-centred social outcomes which benefit us individually and collectively. NOMS is one such example in what can only be termed real life.

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