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New research echoes the principles of early action

December 1st, 2015

Early action’s core principle of prevention has rippled right to the top, foregrounded in a new report commissioned by the charity chief executives body Acevo. It’s caught my attention because it echoes the principles of early action the Early Action Task Force are keenly promoting through our work. I should say that it doesn’t uses the term ‘early action’ as such, and this lack of shared language is one thing hindering the sector as a whole galvanise support for common-sense principles. Still, I’m optimistic because it shows that the principles of early action are gaining ever wider support. photo Acevo_zpsddazu9wh.png

Redesigning public services

Remaking the State, produced by the Commission on Delivering Better Public Services, received attention in the Guardian last week as its co-author Rob Owen, CEO of the St. Giles Trust, highlighted that increasing government spending on prevention would greatly increase the effectiveness of public services.

Campaigning under ‘Five for the Future’, the report ambitiously challenges government to allocate 5% of overall government spending to preventative services across health, welfare, justice, education and the Home Office. While this may appear fanciful, the report notes that in absolute terms this would only get spending back to where it was in 2010. Far from fanciful, then, it demonstrates the frightful effects of spending cuts on preventative services, which have fallen by 45% in local government according to the National Audit Office, calling it a “moral and social catastrophe”. By 2020, the report wants 10% of total government spending to go towards prevention and a proper plan for how these services would be delivered across government through longer-term social programmes and government accounting cycles.

We endorse longer-term government spending, recommending Ten Year Spending Plans reviewed every two or three years to shift planning and budgeting beyond the current short-term outlook. The government should see early action as an investment, increasing its spending on preventative services whilst doing so incrementally to continue supporting acute services until the need lessens.

Empowering citizen-centred reform

The report also emphasises making community central to commissioning and delivering effective public services, echoing the principle of building ‘resourceful communities‘ recently highlighted by Southwark and Lambeth Early Action Commission. One size does not fit all, as everyone knows, so government should wise up to the need for tailoring services to the communities they serve. Yet over the past four years, public services have increasingly been delivered by a few large companies as effectiveness is overlooked for delivery cost-savings. In the case of the Work Programme, 25% of the total value was awarded to one company. This is shutting community organisations out who are often so effective in offering personal, localised and holistic support―it’s little wonder that the number of people on employment support is rising. Private sector public service contracts can be valuable, although they tend to be more effective when embedded alongside organisations in the community.

The report goes on to argue that there is a need for “a new relational compact between the state and the individual… [to] empower them and their communities”. Key to this is calling for a Public Services Constitution that would strengthen people’s power to complain for failed service delivery, enabling them to hold government to account on the right to choose and access good services. It wants to see reform in public services being driven by those who use them, enabling people to have more control over their own lives and, ultimately, ensuring that problems are tackled and harm prevented before doing more damage later down the line.

Taking the failure of public services as its starting point―even questioning whether our most vulnerable citizens are experiencing “a breakdown in the social contract”―Remaking the State, reemphasises that cutting preventative services for short-term cost savings is damaging lives and storing up more demands on the exchequer. It highlights Action for Children’s estimate that prevention for looked after children would save £486 billion over the next 20 years and anywhere between £104 and £616 for prevention in homelessness according to Shelter.

The report sets out six “virtues” of the third sector explaining why its services have “stickability”, pre-dating and enduring beyond government. It suggests that the third sector is best placed to deliver preventative services, made effective by its ability to provide personalised, innovative, collaborative, integrated, and participatory services. As government spending looks set to chip away at preventative services over the next five years following last week’s spending review, it’s perhaps more important than ever for the third sector to start thinking seriously about how it can take up the undeniably challenging task of delivering frontline preventative services.

Mobilising senior leadership buy-in is key to implementing early action on the frontline

This challenge is made harder through dwindling government investment, making bold and foresighted leadership crucial in driving the early action agenda. For my part, I’m encouraged by Acevo’s report because it confirms what practitioners and community workers are telling me that preventative services are effective in enabling people to make sustainable life changes. These same frontline workers are also saying that positive changes are primarily achieved by organisations heavily embedded in the community; whose workers have been there too, whose help doesn’t exclude any aspect of a person’s life and who’re able to give extra support through their long-standing relationships with other local services. These are key aspects of effective public services that Acevo is highlighting. And I sincerely hope that the senior leaders it represents are taking note because their buy-in is key to making early action happen on the frontline.

Rob Owen and Will Hutton, Remaking the State: Remaking the Social Contract between
Public Services and Our Most Vulnerable Citizens, ACEVO, (19 November 2015). Read the full report here.

Spending Review 2015: The Good, the Bad, and the Hanging Question

November 27th, 2015

As the dust settles on the Spending Review three topics attract my attention:

Social Impact Bonds

First the Chancellor allocated £105 million for new Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) tackling youth unemployment, homelessness and poor mental health. Like many useful ideas the SIB has many parents. Community Links is the oldest. Back in 2006 Community Links supporter Peter Wheeler, then working at Goldman Sachs, was visiting our Alternative to Custody project. We had been contracted by the Home Office to run a 12 month programme. Payment was dependant on 90% of the young people turning up 90% of the time. As Peter noted this metric bore no relationship to whether or not the programme succeeded in reducing re-offending. If it didn’t reduce it there was no benefit for society so we shouldn’t be paid anything, if it did the long term value was far greater than the unit cost and we should be paid more. The payment mechanism needed to recognise the value of prevention rather the cost of deliGeorge Osborne 0480amvery.

Peter told me about the International Finance Facility – a cross sector instrument which had been developed by Goldman Sachs to facilitate child immunisation in developing countries. Cutting a long story short we considered how the mechanism might be adapted for tackling domestic challenges first taking a sketchy outline to the then Chancellor Gordon Brown and subsequently developing it through the Prime Ministers Council on Social Action. Social Finance did all the hard yards brilliantly turning a simple concept into a working model and eventually launching the trail blazing project reducing reoffending in Peterborough. Now there are 31 SIBs in the UK alone and over 50 more worldwide

SIBs don’t, as some more excitable ministers and commentators appear to believe, instantly dispense with the need for public expenditure on issues like homelessness or re-offending. We will only do that when we have successfully dispensed with homelessness and re-offending. They do focus public money on successful interventions, not on process, and so facilitate investment in new developments without risk to the public purse. In our favourite metaphor they can pay for the fence at the top of the cliff without garaging the ambulance at the bottom unless and until people stop falling over the edge.

Some SIB projects won’t work, but failures like the recent Rikers’ Island attempt to reduce re-offending in New York may be deeply disappointing for the participants but actually vindicate the model. A new approach was trialled, it failed, investors lost out but the tax payer didn’t. Public servants are always nervous about risk and particularly averse at the moment when every penny is needed on the front line. I am worried about whether the Cabinet Office will have the capacity to deliver this programme (and also an ambitious expansion of the National Citizen Service) whilst their own budget is cut to the marrow but, that aside, the new money should allow us to keep pushing forward on the prevention agenda at a time when so many other funding streams are drying up or have already disappeared. It is good news in an otherwise gloomy statement and that, sadly, takes me to my second point….

An end to austerity?

Osbornes statement on Wednesday emphatically did not “usher in the end of austerity” as the Daily Telegraph gleefully proclaimed. Even the Chancellor was keen to nail that fiction: “It is not an end to the difficult decisions” he told Radio 4’s Today programme. “There are going to be difficult choices for different government departments. Billions of pounds of savings, billions of pounds of savings in the welfare budget as well. This spending review … takes those difficult decisions in day-to-day spending so we can invest in the long term.”

Lord Porter, the Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association spelt out the scale of those “difficult decisions” for local authority leaders: “Even if councils stopped filling in potholes, maintaining parks, closed all children’s centres, libraries, museums, leisure centres and turned off every street light they will not have saved enough money to plug the financial black hole they face by 2020.”

We know from the PMs correspondence with the leader of Oxfordshire that this will have devastating, potentially life threatening results for Council service users everywhere. In areas like east London where provision has already been cut to the bone and services are already under staffed and under siege the consequences are almost unimaginable.

I can understand the chancellors political choices (and be clear, the bulk of the burden is borne by the poor – that is a political choice) but it is plainly bonkers to argue, as Mr Osborne did, that cutting public health , youth work, even ultimately social care and children’s services allows the nation to “ invest in the long term” . As Luke pointed out on this blog yesterday, underinvestment in these services is as foolish and myopic as underinvestment in roads and railways. We will be paying the price for years to come.

The hanging question

Finally my hanging question: Immediately before the Spending Review statement on Wednesday the PM described the Big Lottery Fund (BLF) as “an absolutely excellent organisation” and the Chancellor did not then talk about raiding it’s coffers as I feared that he might. Mr Osborne did however announce the £300m expansion of the National Citizen Service without explaining where the money is coming from. The Blue Book is also mute on the subject. A policy adjustment for BLF nudged through in the months ahead rather than a wholesale diversion of funds announced in the Spending Review would be an easier path for the Chancellor to take but amount to the same thing. I hope very much that my doubts are misplaced and unworthy. Lots of people, far better placed than me, are reassuring on the subject but I will still sleep a little easier when we know exactly where the £300m will be coming from.

Spending Review 2015: What about the long term social plan?

November 26th, 2015

During yesterday’s Spending Review George Osborne’s speech was littered with references to the importance of ‘investment’.

He triumphantly proclaimed that reducing “welfare spending” and increasing “departmental capital investment” over the next five years, as projected by the Office of Budget Responsibility, “is precisely the right switch for a country that is serious about investing in its long term economic success”. He went on to say that investment “in the long term economic infrastructure of our country” is a major “goal of this Spending Review”.

To achieve this investment, however, Osborne stated that he needs to make “difficult decisions to save on day to day costs in departments” - sometimes reducing the effectiveness of important public services – so that the government “can invest in the new roads, railways, science and flood defences and energy Britain needs”.

Social Infrastructure

Undoubtedly, as Osborne pointed out, both the economic and physical infrastructures of Britain are important. But why the incessant focus on these two elements alone?

Imagine if the Chancellor had proudly announced that Britain was leading the way in social infrastructure investment. Imagine if the social assets of our country were as valued by the government as the economic and physical ones.

Ultimately you need investment in all three, with the physical and social assets underpinning the economic ones, but to focus on one or two to the detriment of another is unlikely to ensure the long term security and success of everyone in our society.

One useful way of thinking about social assets is the ‘asset lifecycle’, a concept widely used for capital investment in economic or physical infrastructure. Essentially it requires whoever is making the investment to take a long term view of how much will need to be invested each year to ensure the optimum maintenance of said asset. As the Early Action Task Force has often pointed out, capital spending is protected in the short term as it is understood that it takes a longer period for benefits to accrue. We have previously argued that early action investment should be treated in much the same way.

Asset lifecycle graphs tend to look like this:

 photo _zpsz1x9diwb.jpg

Thinking about a community or a human life in this way instinctively feels a little nauseating, but could it provide a useful way of thinking through investment in social assets?

What shape would the graph be for someone who was failed in their early years by a variety of under-resourced public services, ending up in care and upon leaving finding themselves embroiled in many of the problems that such individuals often face? In all likelihood it would be an ever-rising upwards curve as more and more acute services are needed to meet their cumulatively greater need.

The shape of the graph would look very different for someone who lived in a society where early action was as valued by the Treasury as investment in economic and physical assets. In this vision, effective and timely investment would reduce costs further down the line. The graph’s shape would not be a mirror image – we all experience unavoidable crises at some point in our lives – but ultimately not only would total expenditure over a lifetime be less, but the individual concerned would lead a happier life and contribute more to society.

Top of the league

This is all fairly uncontroversial stuff. Barriers aside, who wouldn’t agree that upfront investment to prevent later problems is not a good idea? It’s a shame that the government seems so utterly enveloped in their ‘long term economic plan’ that the long term social plan appears to have largely been forgotten – a few investments (their problems notwithstanding) such as the Troubled Families programme aside.

As the Chancellor pointed out, “in the last week Britain topped the league table of the best places in the world to invest in infrastructure”. This has the potential to be good news, but if we truly want to achieve long term success we cannot forget the importance of investing in our social assets too.



The Early Action Task Force has set out several ways to achieve early action in a series of reports published in the past few years. Most of the ideas relevant to central government were summarised in Towards Effective Prevention.

We collected many other ways to think about putting early action into practice from a range of experts with decades of experience in and around government.

We have also covered specific issues such as how we can all age better and what early action would look like in the social security system.

Building resourceful communities is key to trailblazing early action in Southwark and Lambeth, and beyond

November 23rd, 2015

After twelve months of deliberation, Southwark and Lambeth Early Action Commission launched its forward-looking report Local early action: how to make it happen last Monday. New Economics Foundation (NEF), who worked with the Commission in producing the report, will no doubt be pleased with the event’s healthy turnout. A number of those attending were from local authorities in London and elsewhere in the South East, giving optimism that there’s genuine appetite for implementing early action at a local level.

The report’s purpose was just that: to set a plan for embedding early action into policy and practices in Southwark and Lambeth and to kick start other local authorities into thinking about early action. It sets out recommendations for institutional change, harnessing resources and supportive leadership to drive changes in systems and practice. Through this, it aims to institute early action as the new ‘normal’, encourage collaborative partnerships, promote places for communities to engage, and support them to become resourceful, knowing their assets and how to mobilise them to prevent problems getting worse.

These are very welcome recommendations, with the report being the most articulate to date on how to start implementing early action at a local level. But while much can be done locally, Dame Margaret Hodge MP highlighted in her keynote address that ring-fencing budgets is crucial for realising early action ― and for that local authorities need the help of national government. Wednesday’s spending review will pose another hurdle for locally financing early action as the Department of Communities and Local Government has agreed average budget cuts of 30% over the next four years (on top of a 51% budget cut since 2010, the most of any department). This makes it increasingly important for communities to recognise and grow their resources from the bottom-up rather than wait for top-down support.

In light of impending financial pressures, the issue of how to fund early action whilst maintaining acute services inevitably came up for discussion. The report helpfully shows that classifying spending can help organisations determine how much spending they allocate to prevention, set targets to shift spending ‘upstream’ and start seeing opportunities for collaborating with other funders. It doesn’t shy away from the need for organisations to find additional resources by pooling budgets between public bodies, looking to charity and business sources and tapping into social and human assets in the community.

But speaking to project leaders and community workers I couldn’t help but sense their frustration that finding additional resources depends on them providing hard numbers on their impact, quantifying what they’re preventing, how they’re helping and their return on investment. For early action that prevents social isolation, for example, or yields benefit decades down the line in the case of some early years’ intervention, the bottom-line is very difficult to prove. This is an issue on which organisations picking up the baton from the Commission should focus, showing that through some core methods of data collection, measurement and analysis even small community organisations can gain better insight into their social and financial value.

In the meantime, highlighting the importance of ‘resourceful communities’ that are ready to seize opportunities for prevention is a welcome shift away from the more defensive language of ‘resilient communities’ that merely weather the consequences of change that’s thrust upon them. By embracing ‘resourcefulness’ the report successfully sets out a plan for community engagement, devolving power and co-producing services that are important aspects of how early action is meaningfully implemented at a local level. Perhaps this is just alliterative smoke and mirrors, but I’m hesitant to write it off as insignificant because time and time again at Community Links we’re seeing that the principles of resourcefulness are what really makes early action effective.

I sense that most people in the room last week are already converts to early action so it’s worth not overemphasising its wider reception given that audience. Even so, I do think this report might very well inspire other local areas to seriously think about adopting the approach. The agenda seems to be moving on from how we spread the concept to how we implement early action in practice. This question needs to be answered at community level by galvanising people to map, grow and harness their local resources and engaging individuals from the bottom-up. This will go some way towards building the truly resourceful communities that are needed to really start implementing early action.

We’re currently collecting examples of early action to inform and inspire others trying to make it happen and influence local and national policy agendas in the process. Over the coming months I’ll be speaking with project leaders, community workers and local service providers hearing about how they’re incorporating prevention into their work. Please get in touch at if you know or are part of a project or organisation that’s putting early action into practice. I’m keen to hear from any sector that operates at any scale or stage of prevention. Even if you’re unsure whether your experience demonstrates early action, I really want to talk with you. I look forward to hearing from you.


Update on Lottery funding and the Spending Review

November 20th, 2015

This post is an update on David Robinson’s previous blog on Big Lottery Funding – “The Big Lottery Fund: Not your money Mr Osborne

I am grateful to everyone who has spoken to me about my pieces on this blog and also in the Huffington Post.

It is now clear that there has been “serious investigation” into using BLF funds to deliver existing government programmes which are consistent with the kinds of things that BLF might otherwise choose to do e.g. the National Citizen Service. I said in my earlier blog that this would be a thinly disguised cut and so it would be,diverting money to pay for a programme which, in this case, has been funded previously by the Cabinet Office.

The net effect of a diversion on anything approaching the scale that has been rumoured would be devastating but my suggestion that BLF could only cope with it by closing their doors to all new applications is not true. This is, as I understand it, because BLF account fully for every new grant in the year in which it is approved e.g. a 3 year grant for £100k a year is all taken off the balance sheet in year one. Consequently all prior commitments have already been accounted for. A cut now would hit the new funding budget but even the worst case figures rumoured this week wouldn’t wipe it out entirely.

Will Mr Osborne take the money? We will know next week but even if there is no mention of BLF in the Spending Review this shouldn’t be taken to mean that the possibility has been dismissed. Ministers often fly kites. They test out the operational practicality of an idea and its political viability. It would not be without precedent if this one didn’t feature in the CSR but pops up fully formed in the 2016 spring budget or autumn statement. If there is no mention next week we who love the Big Lottery Fund should think immediately about how we can so make the case for the Fund in the next few months that ministers will never again contemplate a raid. Like many good friends I have spoken to this week I take the BLF for granted. It is only when I imagine life without it that I realise how important it is.

The Big Lottery Fund: Not your money, Mr Osborne

November 18th, 2015

On a late autumn day very like this one 20 years ago the Big Lottery Fund (BLF), or the National Lottery Charities Board (NLCB) as it was then called, was about to make its first round of grants. The Board was advised by seven Regional Advisory Panels (RAPs). I chaired the London RAP. We had a staff of two. They had spent the weekend before our Panel meeting camped in my kitchen with one lumpy laptop and a small mountain of carrier bags full of application forms. It was, it would be fair to say, a rather less sophisticated operation than today’s BLF.

The press were lottery mad at the time and the smallest story made the news. Speculation, and subsequent confirmation, that we intended to fund local community groups, including those that worked with single parents, refugees, even gay people (!) flabbergasted the Fleet Street establishment who thought every penny should go to Cancer Research. David Mellor, the responsible minister, shared in the apoplexy of the moment and even Prime Minister John Major chipped in from time to time. To his great credit, the chair of the national Board Sir David Sieff, a former Conservative Party treasurer and no left wing patsy, stood firm in his brave and resolute support for the recommendations of the Regional Panels and gradually the independent judgement of the NLCB was asserted, established and ultimately vindicated. There is no community in the UK that has not benefitted many times over from David’s determination, continued by his successors, to make decisions independently and to meet the needs of the whole community without fear or favour. Indeed it is also fair to say, no community that hasn’t benefitted from the foresight of a Conservative government that wrestled with the temptation to interfere. And didn’t.

Now the Big Lottery Fund is threaded deep into the weave of our national life, underpinning tiny community groups and major national charities with grants ranging from £300 to over half a million. Speak to volunteers and staff at the village community centre or the urban youth club, the national advice line or the residential home, and hear how the Fund is tacking disadvantage, creating opportunities, improving lives day in day out. It distributes more each year than Comic Relief and Children in Need, added together, raise in three years and is, far and away, the biggest independent funder of a voluntary and community sector that is admired across the world.

Gone are the lumpy laptops and the Tesco bags. Now BLF is a highly experienced, smart grantmaker leading much of the thinking in the sector and widely respected. Getting a grant isn’t an easy process. It is fair, thorough and utterly professional and as local authority budgets dwindle and pressure mounts on independent philanthropists the Fund has never been more important.

This is why the rumours in recent days that the Chancellors Spending Review next week will take 48 percent from BLF fills me with despair. It is likely that such a cut would leave the Fund unable to pay for anything beyond its existing commitments for the foreseeable future. This wouldn’t be a blow to the administration of a quango in SW1 – it would strike at the beating heart of our communities in every post code throughout the country.

Is there truth to the rumour? My soundings suggest that there is, although of course no one who knows is in a position to talk and no one who talks, at least to me, is in a position to know. Certainly 48% is oddly precise for a baseless fiction and surely a bigger percentage than the gloomy fantasists might ever have imagined possible. Possibly the exaggerated figure emanates from the Chancellor’s own circle. It’s a familiar stunt – float the idea of 48% and then, hey presto, a 20% cut, a previously unimaginable figure, suddenly seems like a blessed relief.

If it were to happen it would probably be presented as a diversion of money not a cut: redirecting lottery funds into replacing a mainstream government programme. Be in no doubt, such a diversion would be a cut with a false beard and this would be a dangerous ruse. It is not an exaggeration but a fact to say that every constituency of every party colour benefits from the Big Lottery Fund. One senior Tory told me yesterday that he will be “watching like a hawk for any manoeuvres to reshape what BLF funds.” “It can’t” he said “be used to substitute government funding”.

George Osborne isn’t the first politician to covert the lottery millions. Rumours have circulated regularly, some well evidenced, but in the end no more than rumours. The Chancellor must understand, as have his predecessors, the unique and irreplaceable valuable of a substantial fund that meets need and unleashes potential in communities throughout the UK. The Big Lottery Fund is at the heart of our common wealth. It is not your money, Mr Osborne.

Tell us what makes you proud: your experiences of early action

November 6th, 2015

Since 2011, we’ve been working with a range of experts to find out how best to build a society which prevents problems rather than coping with their consequences. We call this early action – services or activities that forestall social problems to deliver a triple dividend; enabling people to lead thriving lives, costing less and contributing more. Find out more about our research and what we mean by early action here, in particular take a look at our second report ‘The Deciding Time’.

There’s cross-party support for early action, with commitments to preventative social policy and public services in each of the three major parties’ 2015 manifestos. It’s a common sense approach that’s particularly valuable in the current austerity context of public spending cuts. That said, political promises are worthless without action on the ground which is why we’re collecting your stories as part of a new project to showcase the impact of early action.

We believe that stories of hope and compelling practice can help to inform and inspire and, little by little, change the world. We’re therefore asking you to tell us about your experience of early action to help us support others trying to make it happen and influence local and national policy agendas in the process.

We’re interested in stories from any sector and at any scale, from county-wide access to free exercise programmes to a community run café. We’re also interested in stories at any stage of prevention, from universal services preventing problems arising to timely interventions preventing a problem getting worse.

Whether it’s only partially implemented or piecemeal in its success, we’re interested in your experience of early action to help us deepen our understanding of what makes prevention effective and to share great stories that illustrate the financial, social and economic benefits of acting earlier.

To get in touch, please email or call 020 7473 9666. Even if you’re unsure whether your experience demonstrates early action, I really want to talk with you. As we want frontline experiences of early action, I’m keen to know your opinions on their effectiveness, longevity and any changes you’ve seen in how services are delivered.

Over the coming months we’ll be highlighting the most interesting examples of early action and commenting on their policy implications via our blog, keep abreast of our work here. If twitter is your medium, follow us @Comm_Links.

Early action: “We need to do more” says David Cameron

September 25th, 2015

Prime Minister David CameronIf the PM’s speech on September 11th hadn’t happened to coincide with the final act of an extraordinary summer for her majesty’s opposition, it could have made the front pages. Here are some of the headlines:

“Early intervention is key whether it’s investing in things like health visitors or improving the provision of childcare. We have got to stop picking up the pieces when things have already reached crisis point – with all the misery, and extra costs, that brings…

And for those who are hardest to reach, there should be a whole government approach rather than a series of piecemeal and inconsistent interventions…

We need to do more of this. And we need to do more to encourage departments, local authorities and charities to work together collaboratively. Put simply: it’s now time to progress these ideas further and faster.

Another big step forwards has been our pioneering use of interventions like Social Impact Bonds, which pay private and voluntary sector organisations with some of the savings they deliver to the taxpayer. …I want to take this much further by bringing models like this to scale – in areas like homelessness, mental health and looked after children too.”

I don’t imagine that that these passages really were a cut and paste job from an earlier landmark speech by a recently elected PM with a healthy democratic mandate, but they almost could have been. In his first major outing as PM in July 1997 Tony Blair spoke about “the double jeopardy – worsening social problems and escalating tax bills… government must not fall into the trap of short termism… we know that many problems in later life stem from problems in the family, from poor parenting and lack of support. We have to learn to work more coherently . In every housing estate you can encounter literally dozens of public agencies all often doing good work but all often working at cross purposes or without adequate communication. This matters because it leads to poor policy and wasted resources… our challenge must be to overcome those barriers, liberating funds from their budget silos so that they can be used to deliver the best result.”

I mention the similarity not to belittle either speech, both conveyed an important message, but to demonstrate the scale of the challenge. Blair did useful things on this territory, particularly in his first term, but as we showed in “Triple Dividend” and “The Deciding Time” progress has been very slow and patchy. Deep and enduring change needs determined and persistent leadership and, above all beyond the fine words, a gritty commitment to the kind of bold reforms in systems and structures that will, in practice, shift the dial on behaviour, culture and ultimately services on the ground.

“It is now time to progress these ideas further and faster” says Mr Cameron. How much does he mean it? The Spending review is an early test. In our submission to the Chancellor the Early Action Task Force argued that an Early Action Loan Fund would help deal with the problem of running acute services while early action takes effect and the particular difficulties which exist where costs fall to one budget and savings to another. The Fund would offer interest free loans to public sector agencies to invest in early action. The loans would be paid back over 3 – 7 years through savings in acute provision or welfare spending and would be available to promote innovation and system change within public provision. Loans would be interest free because of the bias toward the status quo and the culture of risk aversion.”

We suggested that “the Fund could be financed by top-slicing existing budgets and/or through a tax on social polluters such as the gambling, alcohol and payday loan industries. It would be administered independently to add accountability and new discipline and ensure that loans remain binding if the Government changes. It would quickly become a reservoir of best practice – both in terms of programme design and implementation challenges. Acting outside of government, it could more easily focus on the delivery of multi year programs across spending and electoral cycles. Critically, while oiling the wheels, the Fund would inject more discipline into the design and delivery of preventative, demand management spending and invest to save projects.”*

At first the Fund might be limited – say £200-250m. This would create the impression of scarcity and prompt the more forward thinking . We would envisage 10-20 programs of £10-20 million – with spend spread over a number of years. But this should be just the beginning: An Early Action Fund should be part of a wider strategy to set up funds that break down silo working and encourage joint investment. We also recommended in our submission pooled budgets and social profit sharing agreements, where different parties agree to invest in early action on the understanding that any future savings are shared to a pre-agreed formula.

The Spending Review is the first major opportunity for the new government to demonstrate the substance of the Prime ministers September rhetoric. We hope that early action really does make the headlines this time around.




* In order to draw the loan, borrowers would have to present a credible plan for the delivery of outcomes and savings. The Borrower would be required to report regularly and failure to deliver would trigger a stop on further drawings of the loan and a liability to repay early. The requirement to repay passes the responsibility for assessing attribution and cost savings to the Borrower and away from the Fund.

In some cases, sufficient benefits and savings may arise within the local authority or Departments to deliver savings over and above the cost of the loan and the local authority would be responsible for repaying the loan.

In order to make this incentive work, there should be a protocol for future spending reviews to enable borrowers to retain the benefit of additional, evidenced savings for a defined period of time before they are claimed by the Treasury to reduce the borrowing requirement.

However, where the savings predominantly fell to the welfare budget in AME, the Treasury would need to be a party to the loan and would have to agree to repay the loan and share a proportion of any additional savings beyond the cost of the loan with the public sector entity that had delivered the saving.

One Hundred Days For Early Action?

August 18th, 2015

Last Saturday heralded the one hundredth day of the current government, and in that time they have managed to fit plenty in.

As argued in the Early Action Task Force’s One Hundred Days for Early Action essay collection, the first few months are a crucial period in which any government can frame their activity over the following five years. It was therefore the perfect opportunity for putting prevention first. But to what extent has this actually happened?

Prevent today or pay tomorrow

Unfortunately the government has focussed on changes that will save money in the short term, but are likely to create costs further down the line. Not only this, but many of them are socially damaging too. Take, for example, the lowering of the benefit cap from £26,000 to £20,000 (£23,000 in London), which is likely to contribute to rising homelessness and force people away from vital support networks in search of cheaper places to live.

Furthermore, the decision to impose the climate change levy on renewable energy will make investment in this often forward-looking sector a much less attractive prospect, and rejecting the imposition of a ‘sugar tax’ (just one possible tax on social polluters suggested in a previous Task Force report) to tackle obesity is strange considering that prevention is far more effective than cure for this particular condition.

Not all bad news

There are some promising developments, however; for example, the devolution agenda offers a chance for new preventative strategies, particularly in health and social care, and, pending the national evaluation, the extension of the Troubled Families initiative could signal commitment to encouraging further breakdown of silos in local service delivery.

The government could – and indeed should – do far more. Practical programmes like parenting classes, Incredible Years group training, and a Troubled Youth Programme learning from Troubled Families might be a useful place to start. However, early action programmes alone run the risk of becoming piecemeal efforts. Equally important are efforts that focus on the workings of government, aiming to lead on changes to organisational cultures and systems. Much of this revolves around longer term planning: focussing on the delivery of outcomes, more effective evaluation, and systems of accountability emphasizing cross-departmental collaboration. All of these ideas are distilled in one of the collection’s introductory chapters.

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second best time is now

Progress in the past one hundred days may have been disappointing but, as the Chinese proverb above suggests, it is never too late for early action.

Our essay collection is by no means a blueprint for the government to follow fastidiously, but it does offer some valuable suggestions as to how the state could shift towards prevention; enabling people to thrive, therefore also contributing more and costing less.

Incidental Connections: an analysis of platforms for community building

July 14th, 2015

At an Early Action Task Force meeting last year we were told two contrasting stories. The first was about an elderly woman whose failure to eat properly and take her medication led to a series of problems, eventually resulting in her being admitted to a nursing home. The second woman, a long standing member of an allotment group, fell ill but was looked after by other group members. They took turns sharing their meals with her, checking on her daily for a chat and running other errands wherever necessary. The arrangements remained in place for nine months until they were no longer needed.

One was unhappy, remains unhappy, and now depends on expensive care services. The other was happy, is happy, and costs nothing. She managed to cope with the stress of illness and was enabled to come out the other side stronger than ever. No-one was ever asked, trained, or paid to support the second woman. No-one would even call themselves a volunteer; they were just doing ‘what anyone would do’. The strong community, ‘doing what anyone would do’, is in the interest of us all and, given current trajectories, increasingly urgent.

Is it just a matter of chance, or can such communities be built? How, as a society, do we best nurture the conditions for care and support to happen ‘incidentally’, just as in the allotment group, without the structures and systems and the artificiality that would negate its essence?

These are some of the questions that we set out to answer in our latest report, Incidental Connections. To do this we spoke to people from ten ‘platforms’ – events, groups, activities and/or spaces – including a school gate, a coffee shop and a running club.

The research

The first thing we found was that whilst the functionality of a platform was the primary reason people engaged, the motivation to participate further was prompted by the platform being both friendly and fulfilling. Take the running club, for example:

“The initial reason people go is to run, but often people will stay because of the people they meet… It might be a really cold night and you’ll think, ‘do I really want to go?’ and you’ll end up going because of your friends.”

Many participants also drew a contrast between platforms that are merely functional and those that are both functional and friendly. A good example of this was the marketplace as compared to the supermarket; the former is a far more appealing place as, in the words of one participant, “there’s a fair chance [I’ll] bump into someone I know” whereas in supermarkets “by and large the number of times you meet someone you know there and you can stop for a chat are far less”.

Secondly, each platform also offered the opportunity to create and sustain a range of different relationships from casual acquaintance to long-lasting friendships. These relationships were often supportive, from minor acts of information sharing to prolonged emotional support during a period of stress. In some cases there was evidence of multiple forms of support for vulnerable people; for example, one respondent told us the story of how he and other staff at the coffee shop noticed that a man who was “borderline homeless” hadn’t “come in for a couple of weeks” and so they found “out where he lived and went to see him” to check that he was okay. Although this could be considered “stepping over a line” the person in question was ultimately very pleased to see them and be offered support with their problems.

Finally, there were seven key facilitators that encouraged the creation and maintenance of socially supportive relationships. These included trust, the permission to connect, commonality, regular and sustained engagement, collaboration, a mixture of online and physical spaces, and the personal characteristics of those involved in the platform. However personal characteristics were also sometimes a barrier to meaningful engagement, as were a lack of resources and a lack of trust.


The small nature of this project meant that some questions remained at the end of the research. It would be useful to look at several platforms of the same type to understand why certain school gates, for example, might facilitate socially supportive relationships better than others. Furthermore, as we only spoke to one or two people from each platform, who by their very involvement were quite committed to their platform, we did not manage to explore how ‘outsiders’ might experience exclusion. It would also be interesting to delve deeper into the relationship between online and offline engagement within and around platforms.

As such this project offers some tentative answers to the important questions set out above, but further research is needed to fully understand the implications of these platforms. This is particularly the case when we consider how a range of platforms within a certain area such as a neighbourhood could connect with each other, create a set of communities within a wider community, and potentially even promote local economic development.