Competition or collaboration – the future of the restorative practice field

Happy New Year and welcome to my first blog of 2016. I hope that you all had a good Christmas break, which in my case brought countless opportunities to practice restorative parenting as my children squabbled over their presents.

It was also an opportunity to reflect – as we develop our work programme for next year – on where the restorative practice field has got to and what the future will bring. Looking back, much of the field’s history has been based around collaboration – people from different areas and different fields working together to promote restorative practice and learning from each other to help advance its use. Indeed the RJC was founded on the basis of the need for a forum to share ideas and bring restorative practitioners of every kind together.

In recent years, however, the external environment has changed, particularly in the criminal justice system. Funding is available but much of it is subject to competitive tendering. Providers are pitched against each other in winning contracts. Different agencies are ‘competing’ for caseloads and to claim credit for successes in reducing reoffending. And existing providers are being elbowed out by competitors.

The increased use of competition in the delivery of public services is here to stay. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. So what does that mean for the restorative justice field?

The field could fragment, with a focus on capturing market share and retaining intellectual property. This would be, in my view, a mistake. I am not naïve. I know that many providers in the field are businesses with a responsibility to bid for and win contracts. Competition can drive up standards, improve processes, and ensure victims and offenders receive the best available service.

But the reality is that money is getting ever tighter and many commissioners are already frustrated with restorative justice. They feel that it is expensive and does not deliver sufficient volume to justify the cost. This is short-sighted and also reflects the fact that contracts too often fail to measure what really matters. But if we’re not careful then this will become the dominant view and restorative justice will quickly fall out of fashion. A fragmented field, with providers failing to learn from each other, will only contribute to this.

If we want to prevent this happening, in my view we are best placed to do so collaboratively. That means working together to maximise effectiveness, to innovate, and to find new ways of working. This will grow the market – ensuring that there are more contracts and more opportunities in the future.

This does rely on the field learning from each other across and within sectors. How, for example, can we improve take up – one of the biggest challenges facing the field? What can restorative prisons learn from the whole school model? What can new sectors learn from work that has already gone on in criminal justice? And can practitioners who are already a long way into their restorative careers support those who are just starting out?

I see the RJC at the heart of this collaborative approach. It is an important part of our work to enable and support our members to work together. We need to build up resources that help the field to improve what we do and to identify and share good practice. We can also help to share the stories of our successes as widely as possible, to decision-makers, stakeholders and the broader public.

This can, in my view, contribute to the creation of a strong, united restorative practice field working together to maximise the availability and take up of restorative practice across sectors. It’s now more crucial than ever that we achieve this, when all sectors are at risk of funding cuts. It’s up to us – the people working in the field – to ensure that restorative practice isn’t the victim of austerity. But to do that, we’ll need to work together.