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The deciding time

A group of charity leaders has claimed that as much as 40% of public spending goes on dealing with problems that could have been prevented if action had been taken earlier. The group in question is the Early Action Task Force, of which I am a member, and the claim is made in The deciding time, a report we released today. Following on from The triple dividend, the group’s first report, The deciding time charts what progress has been made, and identifies six major ‘blocks’ to the further development of early intervention.

We know that prevention is better than cure—it helps create better lives and, done right, it saves money. Yet whilst early intervention is common sense, it is far from being common practice. One of the blocks identified by the report is that ‘we don’t really know what works on the ground’, with policy makers and commissioners approaching early action with caution or even suspicion. This stems partly from hearsay and partly from the experience of failed programmes, such as the Home Office Crime Reduction Programme in the late 1990s where, in a third of areas, crime levels actually increased over the duration of the £250m scheme.

It is true that not all preventative services work. When a new programme is announced, those behind it tend to ‘evangelise’ about its success rates before really good data is in—on top of the fact that it is harder to measure the impact of a programme judged on what doesn’t happen, rather than what does. But none of this means we should continue the current levels of spending on acute services; just because a particular scheme doesn’t work does not mean all attempts at early action should be abandoned. Instead, we should learn from these mistakes and use the lessons to do it better next time.

To understand what works and what doesn’t we need good evidence. It can be difficult to find such evidence, not least because over the years information and data has been collected by different providers, using a range of processes and indicators that make it hard to draw comparisons or conclusions about what is effective. However,  much can be done. Progress is being made towards shoring up existing evidence, whilst programmes such as Inspiring Impact, which NPC leads, and the soon-to-be-launched Early Intervention Foundation, will also help us take strides towards the development of shared measurement practices.

There are some other relatively straightforward ‘wins’ recommended in the report, which, if implemented, could drastically improve our understanding of early intervention approaches that really work. For example, to help build up an evidence base it would be useful to track projects over time, using data that public agencies already collect. We know that this could be a really practical tool, and next month, NPC is publishing a report on Unlocking offending data, recommending how government data can be used to help charities and other providers assess what reoffending reduction services work best.

It is also important that the voluntary sector recognises that sharing information is both a right and a responsibility. Charities are good at talking about approaches that work, but are much less likely to report back about programmes that are not successful. This is understandable, but unless organisations begin to share information about their ‘failures’, others will not  learn from their experiences and will risk repeating the same mistakes. Several initiatives are trying to change this, for example, Project Oracle’s Evidence Competition, which provides an incentive for transparent reporting.

There are many barriers to the expansion of early action, of which evidence is just one—and there is no single solution. However, with estimates that 80% of reduction in public expenditure has yet to hit the front line, making the right choices about investment is more important than ever. The message from the The deciding time is loud and clear: to really make expenditure sustainable, as well as create a better society, switching more spend to early action is key.

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