The Community Links led Early Action Task Force has just published a new book One Hundred Days for Early Action: Time for Government to put prevention first: A collection of essays by a respected group of leading experts and thinkers with decades of experience of Government – as, civil servants, senior advisers or respected commentators.
The latest of our posts serialising the essays between now and the General Election considers whether Early Action needs to generate a popular movement to get it “trending” . Contribution by Ray Shoastak , International Adviser, former Head of the Prime Ministers Delivery Unit and Director General, Performance HM Treasury.
And can you imagine fifty people a day? I said fifty people a day…Walkin’ in, singin’ a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walkin’ out? Friends, They may think it’s a MOVEMENT, and that’s what it is…
ARLO GUTHRIE Alice’s Restaurant lyrics
For me early action is when a health visitor sees that if a family doesn’t get help they are storing up problems (and costs) further down the line – and does something (either themselves or through referral) that turns the situation around. Or when a pre-school or GP sees that a child may not be ‘school ready’ and helps the family address the issues.
Or when a teacher sees the early signs of a student’s behaviour impacting on learning – and sorts some help with either the child or the family to stop it getting worse. Or when a local worker in a community based charity acts quickly so a young person doesn’t find themselves on a downward cycle of problems with substance abuse.
These are the actions of the people we know who make a difference – the frontline of nurses, social workers police officers, doctors, teachers – who work directly with children, young people and families. Each day they work tirelessly on behalf of children and families and do what they can to help, to find someone else to help, or to intervene in a way that is outside their normal response. I find them everywhere I go and they are passionate about helping those in our communities to make the most of their lives and reach their potential. Unfortunately, far too often I also find them frustrated in trying to make the siloed bureaucracies join-up. And too often the required thresholds essentially say: “go away and get worse and then we can help”.
So a new Government should quickly ask ‘what can we do that is more enabling for frontline practitioners?’ I am not suggesting that Government should avoid issues such as poor performance, unresponsive services or provider capture. But it needs to do its business recognising that frontline services are delivered at the frontline and that our public services will never be better than the skills, attitudes and behaviours of those that do the job. Given their role in creating the legislative, financial and policy context for services, it is critical that Government looks at the things which can make services more difficult to deliver, including:
- poorly constructed legislation,
- funding regimes that force silos,
- poorly designed approaches to inspection,
- the balance struck between the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
There now seems to be a consensus that the individual social costs and financial consequences of late action are too great a price to pay – the common sense case for early action has been made. The good work of many local partnerships, local authorities, the Early Action Task Force, the Allen Reports and the Early Intervention Foundation have all played their part in both raising the issues and finding new ways of managing the challenge of meeting acute needs and at the same time acting earlier. But it is not enough and often the work is at the level of “the system”. At a time of restricted resources and more complicated lives it is even more critical we break the cycle at the level of “the individual”.
I have been thinking recently that Government focus on the complexity of integrated working, attributing financial benefits, accountabilities and coordination (all of which matter and are important) may be the wrong place to start. I have been wondering if there is a danger that we are making early action too complicated and starting in the wrong place. Maybe what we need is a movement that starts with citizens and the frontline.
I am not suggesting that the new Government doesn’t need to prioritise early action spend as it will save us money in the long term. The Treasury also needs to play a more active role in both creating a framework which will support cross-department planning and coordination – and figuring out how savings in prison and benefit costs can be reallocated to social workers. Certainly there is a need for Local Authorities, other commissioners and providers to increase investment in evidence-based programmes; and local partnerships to integrate their services. But what I am really reflecting is that given I find that the people in the system – politicians, civil servants, local government officers, commissioners, frontline folk – all care deeply about helping the people they serve more quickly it is odd that we are finding this so difficult. We continue to invest when it is far too late. Maybe we need to readjust our thinking to recognise it is only people on the frontline who can spot the need for early action. And it is only the frontline that can take the early action; we should build our systems from that staring point.
So my proposition for the new Government is that instead of thinking about new legislation or new initiative they should focus on ensuring the system supports the early action judgements of frontline practitioners and citizens. How about a movement of frontline practitioners to get early action trending, because movements start with people working together to advance their shared ideas and maybe we are not paying enough attention to them.
What would happen if the Government focused more on giving the frontline greater voice? Finding ways in which we could amplify the strength of their judgements about what needs to be done to help the people they see each day. Finding ways of empowering them to act decisively when early action is the right response to the day-to-day challenges faced by the children and families they work with. What would be the consequences if the Government really focused on unblocking what gets in their way rather than the bigger ‘systems’ issues. After all, they are the people who identify the practical, often small, changes in behaviour that can begin the process of changing the reality for children and families. They see it and do it every day.
If they did have an enhanced voice would it be so loud that the system would begin to change? At a time when ‘austerity’ is impacting on frontline numbers and the nature of our universal services (let alone the more targeted ones) will the reality of what is at stake become clearer? If we give voice to the people who are applying the thresholds and witnessing the consequences would we get the change we are after?
If we enable them to speak out will they be seen as whingers, disrupters or activists? The danger of movements is that it becomes disruptive and focuses on blaming others. That would be a disaster. Is it possible to magnify the reality of what frontline practitioners see in a way that frames their contribution the way it is intended – to solve problems. More importantly, can their perspective be heard in a way that leads Government to action and overcome whatever obstacles exist?
Similarly, can the Government get better at learning from what frontline folk do, as individuals in both their interventions and in the way they unblock the system to help those they work with? Could we turn this learning into system change – rather than the other way around? Do we need a movement which is not about big changes (although those are needed too) but about small practical ways to readjust the system to focus on solving the day to day problems and challenges – and get incremental improvement now?
Or maybe it is happening already. Discuss.