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.
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.