Deciding to act earlier

After years of rather dry talk about public service transformation, in the run up to Chancellor’s Pre-Budget report next week the big debate on the future nature of services and welfare is starting to take shape. In the wake of a further set of dire fiscal forecasts, it is clear that a little innovation here, some on-line services there and bit joining up elsewhere isn’t going to do the trick.

Some are starting to argue more vocally for a much more radical programme of further cuts to achieve fiscal sustainability: increasingly constraining services and welfare to only the neediest in the most severe circumstances.  Even those seeking a fiscal stimulus in the short term often do not appear to have an answer to the ‘graphs of doom’ starting to characterise local commissioner’s views on their medium term finances.

So we should take note of an important alternative approach that is set out today. The Deciding Time presents a vision for an early action society in which public services and civil society work together on preventing problems, rather than spending billions of pounds on clearing them up.

Preventive services have always felt like the poor cousin in service delivery. They don’t come with flashing blue lights and sirens. Their workers rarely top the professional hierarchies.

Preventing problems more effectively could, however, be the key to a future in which more people thrive and the government’s books balance. The cost to the Exchequer of ill-health in the working age population, for example, estimated at £62-£76 billion per annum, about the size of the entire structural deficit. One recent study found the potential value of preventing half of current youth unemployment in a single year to be around £14 billion over the following decade. For every extra year of working life added to the average career, the Department of Work and Pensions consider that the economy grows by 1% and the budget deficit shrinks by 0.6% GDP. These are big figures – the type we need to be thinking about given the fiscal challenge.

Preventative services won’t avoid all these problems or realise all these opportunities, but at Social Finance we are already seeing the potential of a new set of preventative approaches, whether in reducing re-offending or tackling financial exclusion.

So how could such a shift to prevention be accomplished? The Deciding Time argues that the key lies not just in shifting the way we all look at the purpose of public services but in changing the technical architecture of service planning, funding and delivery. For example, capital spending on roads and other infrastructure is treated differently from day to day revenue spending by the Treasury – in recognition of it’s long term contribution to economic growth.  Expenditure on much prevention also needs to be accounted for differently, and treated as an investment. Rather than plan spending for the next three years, a ten-year perspective is required. In turn, the way preventative services are delivered needs to be more rigorous. The message is that we cannot rely on service redesign alone, we need to bring together evangelists, public expenditure architects and social entrepreneurs if an alternative early action society is to be built.

 Ben Jupp is a Director at Social Finance and member of the Early Action Taskforce

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