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Is introducing conditionality for people receiving in-work benefits a condition too far?

February 2nd, 2016

As the Government takes its first step towards introducing a conditionality regime for people receiving in-work benefits, we look at the dangers and opportunities of in-work progression.

Last week, the Department for Works and Pensions (DWP) published its In-work progression advice trial evaluation looking at how best to help people on ‘in-work’ benefits progress in the labour market. At first glance it appears a surprisingly altruistic and progressive move by a Government with a reputation for more punitive reforms. However, on closer examination there are far more worrying signs that this is the first tentative step towards introducing a regime of conditionality to approximately one million people currently receiving in-work benefits.

We firmly believe a clear distinction should be made between “in-work support” and “in-work conditionality”. In our recent submission to the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into In-work progression in Universal Credit we recommend the Government focuses on developing supportive, trusted relationships and providing tailored advice as the most effective way of helping people into better paid work, reducing their dependency on benefit paymCarrot And Stick Incentives Lead Manageents in the long term.

The carrot or the stick?

In the report the DWP state that they ‘cannot put in place an in-work, conditionality regime without building an evidence base of ‘What Works’ for those who are in-work but receiving financial support.’ In seeking to answer this question, they contacted 75,000 in-work Tax Credit claimants, encouraging them to take advice offered by the National Careers Service. In total just 848 claimants (1.1%) responded and engaged with the service. The DWP partly attributes this dismal response rate to many of the recipients misunderstanding their letters; believing they were intended for people out-of-work. Nonetheless, the poor response rate still poses an important question: what is the most effective way to support people to progress in work?

Community Links’ experience as a local charity helping people find and sustain employment is that people in work are, unsurprisingly, already highly motivated to improve their income. Our research report Just About Surviving found that people want to work for a variety of reasons; to gain financial security and a steady income, but also for the emotional and social benefits that employment brings, and to be a good role model for their children. They also want to escape the perceived stigma of claiming benefits and to have a sense of pride in their work.

A desire to progress?

The DWP report actually echoes some of our findings, with a majority of the 35 people they interviewed reporting they were “open to progression”. Only a small minority stated they weren’t willing to progress, with many of these citing old age as the reason. The report describes how many in-work claimants face ‘distinct constraints that either prevent them from taking steps towards progression or slow down their progress, even where motivation is strong’. The report partly attributes this to people’s attitudes, but also to more flexible and insecure labour markets. Our experience has shown these barriers to progressing include employers wanting to retain people on flexible contracts, not having access to personalised and knowledgeable careers advice, a lack of affordable childcare and individuals being unable to access funding for skills improvement.

With these factors in mind, the DWP should carefully as they explore how best to introduce in-work conditionality – especially as there is little or no evidence for the effectiveness of conditionality in getting unemployed people into work, let alone on what works for people in-work. Civitas recently published a report Fixing Broken Britain which questions the ‘social cost’ of sanctions and calls for the Government to commission an independent body to assess both their effectiveness and impact; a position we support. Logic follows that the DWP should act on such advice before even considering expanding the use of sanctions to those in work.

So as the DWP consider their next steps and the Work and Pensions Committee sit down to hear evidence, we hope they both duly consider the dangers of applying conditionality to people in work, and the significant opportunities for providing people with greater in-work support.

The value of values: what really drives system change

January 20th, 2016

This guest blog is written by Clare Wightman, the Director of Grapevine in Coventry and Warwickshire.

Together with Coventry Law Centre, who received funding from the Early Neighbourhood Fund, we’ve formed IGNITE. It’s an ambitious programme to change the way public services are delivered, away from crisis and towards acting earlier on people’s problems. IGNITE’s public sector partner, Coventry City Council, will use the programme to learn how it can turn lives around and save money in the long run.

That means we’re very curious about how you really make deep change happen in big complex systems dealing with big intractable social problems

So is Collaborate – an independent CIC focusing on the thinking, culture and practice of cross-sector collaboration in order to improve services to the public

Collaborate launched a new report on place-based systems change at the end of last year. Behaving like a System? showcases their findings from a piece of action research carried out in Coventry

They produced a set of preconditions for systems change from their time spent in Coventry and many of these make sense – the rare attempt to look at systems change through the eyes of the citizen is welcome. But the report raises an important question for me.

Does change best happen when we push our values to one side? On a simple level I get that tub thumping about ‘my values’ gets in the ways of collaborations.  But values are critical drivers of system-busting change too.

Here’s a few words of caution:

Values and systems change

It’s not clear how the ‘public good’ can be delivered in the future. There’s no obvious path to follow and not much agreement.

Systems Leadership teaches us that in uncertain and complex times like these it’s your ability to grow and sustain action by connecting to others through values that’s critical.

Radical change in the face of uncertainty and complexity needs resilience, determination and creativity. Connecting to people’s values and inner motivations enables them to find what they need. It’s not formal structures or top down strategies that drive the kind of change we need now – it’s initiative, energy, relationships and commitment. All of them motivated and fed by our values.

Values at front line

Values and beliefs drive positive and effective support and they do it much more powerfully than sanctions and performance management. Who wants staff who hit the target but miss the point? We can’t afford to do that anymore. For truly transformative work at the ‘front line’ we have to trust staff to do the right thing. That means we have to trust that they will look beyond the presenting problem and get beyond thinking ‘that’s not my job.’ But it’s discretionary  right? – no one will really know whether you turned a blind eye or not. Only your beliefs and values will drive you to do what is right and worthwhile for the people you serve.

Values are what people value

Lankelly Chase’s Promoting Change Network has been fantastic at unearthing what effective support for people with multiple and complex needs is like. At the heart of that is what people themselves say works. And it’s all about who you (the workers) are and what you value – Will you build an equal and trusting relationship with me? Will you make space for my priorities over your service targets? Will you get me ‘stable’ or will you go further, helping me get a rewarding life with purpose and relationships? Will you be energetic and resourceful in building with me a broad support network  or will you ‘close my case’?

So let’s get clearer about the value of values and not assume they are only or mainly an inhibitor of change.

If you want to know more about IGNITE contact Emma Bates (, Programme Manager at Coventry Law Centre.

No Other Way: the story of the Early Action Task Force so far

December 17th, 2015

They went because their open eyes could see no other wayWalking along the South Bank to the Southwark and Lambeth Early Action Commission event last month I passed the elegant memorial to the volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil war. It contains the striking lines from C. D. Lewis’s ode to the volunteers of the International Brigade “they went because their open eyes could see no other way”.

The line has come back to me several times over the last couple of weeks as we have reflected on what the Task Force has and hasn’t achieved in the last three years and how we might think about the future.

Look at the desperate financial projections for hospitals across the UK, in the news again this week, and consider the one in five beds in the huge London Hospital just down the road from us here in Newham currently occupied by patients whose condition is caused by or complicated by avoidable diabetes. Listen to Lord Porter, the Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association, talking in November about the “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.” Speak to people in the queue downstairs at Community Links. Across the public realm we are locked into trajectories that are simply unsustainable. We have argued for a more preventative approach, for a “need reduction strategy” because with open eyes we can see no other way.

In this end of term report written for the Task Force we consider the progress so far. Early next year we will be sharing our plans for the next stage.

We need an early action approach to later life more than ever

December 8th, 2015

It’s a universal truth that we get older. According to the ONS, average life expectancy at birth has increased since the 1980s by about 10 weeks every year for women and 13.5 for men. This means that 1 in 3 babies born this year will be centenarians. More than a demographic change, an ageing population is a social challenge as more people depend on public services paid for by fewer people of working-age.

In response the government is supporting the Centre for Ageing Better as part of the What Works Network, which aims to improve the way government and other organisations create, share and use high-quality evidence for decision making. With £50m Big Lottery funding over the next decade, its programme ‘Fulfilling Lives: Ageing Better’ plans to improve the lives of older people by helping them feel more prepared for later life, more in control and more active and connected. photo Ageing_zpsbxiixrko.png

Last Wednesday the research findings underpinning these priorities were announced. Along with Ipsos MORI, it conducted a major study into the wellbeing of over 50s, interviewing almost 1,400 people. It shows that social connectedness, financial security and health are the main determiners of wellbeing. More tellingly, perhaps, it shows that people with high social connectedness are able to overcome the negative effects of poor health and financial worries, suggesting that it’s the most significant indication of wellbeing.

It follows, then, that having more opportunity to be with people is the major aspiration among over 50s. Those with high social connectedness are more than twice as happy as the average older person. Over 50s also want to be fitter, more active and connected through better access to societies and volunteering.

This means there’s a huge potential for early action in later life. Building relationships and resourcefulness within communities is one of its core principles, and enabling older people to become part of social groups and engaged with their communities not only improves individual’s wellbeing but also contributes more to society as a whole.

Too often the preventative thrust of early action is only associated with early years, but these findings show that it’s important throughout the life-cycle, enabling people to maximise quality of life in older age. As Anna Dixon, the Centre’s CEO said, it’s not about living longer but putting life back into living.

This means enabling older people to meaningfully participate by promoting fitness classes, offering accessible financial advice and planning, and more social and volunteering opportunities to name but a few. This is so important in changing the perception of ageing to one of ‘resourcefulness’: as chronological age rises it is not inevitable that people should suffer decline. At the moment it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that people who look upon ageing negatively die 7.5 years earlier than their more positive peers. Society has a huge role to play in proactively supporting older people view ageing as positively as possible.

We’re pleased that the Centre for Ageing is committed to a preventative, proactive and asset-based approach to ageing. Last Wednesday it felt as though there’s genuine enthusiasm for sharing what’s most effective in enabling older people to lead thriving lives, costing less and contributing more. Last year we set out our vision for early action in later life, showing that longer-term planning, integrating and locally providing services has the potential to increase wellbeing and social connectedness among older people.

With our collective age on the up, it’s no good for government to continue its piecemeal and reactive policies on ageing, tinkering at social care and pension reform. It’s unsustainable on public finances and underutilises the huge contribution older people can make through their time, resources and experiences. Restructuring the labour market to enable older people reduce their hours and change roles, tailoring social care towards the individual and introducing services to signpost over 50s to age-friendly local employers, charities and societies are among many of our recommendations for transforming older people’s opportunities for participation.

Now, more than ever, is the time for doing so. With foresight around enablement and prevention, the Centre for Ageing has scope to institute early action in later life and deliver systemic change. It’s difficult at this stage to say any more than watch this space, but with ten years secure funding it really does have the resources to make later life a transformative platform for early action.

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.