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Investing in Early Action

By Guest

The National Audit Office’s landscape review of early action, published a couple of weeks ago, has been warmly welcomed by the Early Action Task Force, including in an article by David Robinson in today’s Guardian, and in this blog from Big Lottery Fund England Director Dharmendra Kanani, which was first published today by the Guardian and is reproduced below. Dharmendra sits on the Task Force, and Big Lottery Fund support the Task Force’s work.

Prevention is better than cure. Yet although we all know this intuitively, we do little about it.

Because society invests so little time and effort in proving this, it does not feature in policymaking or public spending decisions. We are all far better at responding to problems than we are at stopping them from getting worse or even starting in the first place.

Every time we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, for example economic recession, the received wisdom is to focus on acute services because the business case for prevention is not made. However, a shift away from reactive spending towards early action is the only way to reduce public spending over the long term.

The National Audit Office’s Early Action: Landscape Review follows recommendations made by the Early Action Task Force (of which the Big Lottery Fund is a member) to carry out a value for money study of early action. It states that while government has “signalled its commitment to early action as a principle” and taken some “tentative steps” towards realising that ambition, “short-term thinking, a lack of integration in many areas and poor evidence gathering” are holding back progress.

In an age of austerity, how can we make a compelling case to invest in projects, partnerships and interventions that may not see benefits for five, six or 10 years or more? BIG is investing more than £400m to address some of these challenges in England.

We are not constrained by statutory obligations to specific citizens. We are able to fund schemes early and over a long period of time, even up to 10 years. We are not bound by parliamentary terms or annual budgetary rounds that might temper longer-term ambitions and financial commitments. We do not face the problems of departmental silos.

We can organise investments around the needs of individuals, concentrate on early action and evidence what works. We can then share that learning so that civil servants who design national systems or commission local services can be confident in the value of preventative approaches without facing the risk of failing to meet shorter term deadlines.

A Better Start is just one example. Under this programme, BIG is preparing to invest between £30m and £50m in three to five local areas in England over the next decade. This will demonstrate what can be achieved when services are organised around the needs of vulnerable babies in three key areas of development: social and emotional; communication and language; and nutrition.

A fundamental part of our approach is to provide the evidence needed to change the way that local health, public services and the voluntary sector work together to put early action at the heart of service delivery.

Independent evaluation is built into our plans. Across the UK we are supporting outstanding early intervention projects that have a strong track record or that have already been proven to work. We have commissioned research to help understand not only what the most effective interventions are, but how these can be replicated or extended to many more needy people.

For example, Roots of Empathy, a groundbreaking project that our funding is bringing to England and Wales for the first time, involves a baby coming into schools acting as a “tiny teacher” to help children learn empathy and reduce aggressive behaviour. Research in Canada shows that this decreases social aggression in up to 39% of students and increases helpful behaviour by 78%.

The NAO states that “early action has the potential to improve outcomes and value for money, but evidence of its impact and cost-effectiveness is currently patchy”. BIG has a programme of investments under way that will build that evidence base.

It is essential that policymakers engage with these now, so the lessons we learn are captured for the benefit of everyone in the UK, not just the people participating in the projects. Making the business case for society to invest in prevention will hopefully help us to stop endlessly repeating responses and reactions to society’s problems.

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