The 2015 Project: Why wait for trouble? The case for early action

Will Horwitz is Policy & Media Coordinator at Community Links. This blog post is part of The 2015 Project – your chance to tell NCVO what our policy priorities should be.

Imagine, in 2015, a new Government sets out its bold ten year early action vision for the UK, explaining how it will radically reshape social care, for example, to prevent people ending up in hospital or care homes rather than merely responding when they do. It might announce unprecedented investment in a nationwide public mental health strategy to prevent the crippling burden of mental illness which we currently only address once people are seriously ill. Or it might revolutionise support for children under five to ensure everyone is ready to start and thrive at school.

Bold, far-reaching investments with an eye firmly on the long term. Our sector would be at the heart of all these changes and many more because Government could never do this alone and we, more than most, understand the cost of waiting until problems have developed before trying to pick up the pieces.

We know, and have done for centuries that it’s better to build a fence at the top of the cliff than run an ambulance at the bottom. And yet public services, many charities and much of society persists in waiting and hoping and dealing with the consequences. Why?

There are challenges in this for our own sector: I have never seen a charity with a business plan that shrinks to zero over the next decade as it gradually ‘does itself out of business’, and rarely seen a funding application that proposes to spend differently in years 4 and 5 because by then need will have reduced and more will be spent on prevention. And despite believing we’re best placed to do this work we often lack the evidence to prove it and Government, protective more than ever of public money, is unwilling to take the gamble.

But however hard we try, bigger obstacles stand in our way; the structure of the public sector and public funding biases against early action, short term financial planning and a government riven with departmental division focus funding and therefore activity on short term rescue. The early action work in which charities specialise – community centres, play schemes, befriending programmes – is cut, in particular by cash-strapped local authorities, but there’s no option to cut the rescue services so they continue getting more expensive as demand rises inexorably.

Investing in early action and reducing long-term need can be done in three ways. First by spending more. This isn’t as naïve as it sounds but nor will it ever be the complete answer. The Early Action Task Force is working with an emerging alliance of independent funders and the Big Lottery Fund, the UK’s largest independent funder, has significantly switched the balance of its portfolio towards earlier action in the last two years. The use of social investment to finance transition is increasingly important. All important steps but not enough.

Second by making choices and reallocating funds, for example cutting police budgets and paying for detached work. Public policy is all about choices all the time but these can be particularly difficult.

Third by extending the budget cycle and rebalancing between years, spending without altering the overall size of the envelope. This would enable governments to spend now on fences at the top of the cliff AND ambulances at the bottom and then save towards the end of the cycle when the preventative strategy has begun to reshape and reduce the patterns of demand. We have called for ten year spending plans, regularly reviewed, so cuts now don’t just cost more in future.

In 2015 we will need all three. Could we begin now, reaching a broad, generous agreement with whoever will form the new government that we – the sector – will finally make good on our commitment to early action, rigorously examine how we could act earlier, plan and budget for ten years, do more than simply rescue?

In return Government would change the spending rules, starting with Treasury whose influence will be felt across the public sector, to embed long-term thinking in Government. They would commit to spend more now on bold, long term social investments to match the infrastructure investments every government heralds. And both sides would recognise we cannot do this alone or even as a double-act, and reach out to wider civil society and beyond. A mission for the next decade; to make common sense common practice, so as a country we are ready to seize opportunity and cope with setbacks, not perpetually deal with the costs of failure.

For your chance to tell NCVO what we should be doing in our policy work on early action, answer our three quick questions.

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