Spending more on prevention will improve public services

People are not things,” the eminent statesman Lord Ramsbotham once told me. And he is right – it’s people who our public services should be aimed at and it’s people who drive changes in behaviour, not processes and programmes. Such is the thrust of the ACEVO commission into delivering better public services, which I co-chaired with journalist and author Will Hutton.

Our report, Remaking the State, argues that the commissioning and procurement of public services should be based on effectiveness rather than what’s cheap. And quick cost savings are not the answer. The answer is much more obvious – prevent problems before they become costly failures.

It is madness to ignore the value of prevention when compared to short term savings. Let’s take some real examples. The National Audit Office estimates that spending on prevention has fallen by as much as 45% in the past five years. Our research has shown that the Ministry of Justice spends 1.5% of its budget on prevention and the DWP even less . Yet independent financial analysts have confirmed what the charity I run, St Giles Trust, knows – that every pound invested in offender rehabilitation saves ten pounds further down the line.

It is organisations like the St Giles Trust that feel the cut of the spending axe first, even though preventative spending helps keep children out of homes, the elderly out of hospital and people falling out of work.

This is why the commission is calling for Five for the Future, for 5% of government spending to be allocated for prevention. That’s around £40bn a year, which is less than we currently spend on paying interest on the national debt. And we want this to rise to 10% of by 2020.

These aren’t fanciful aspirations. They are solid targets. This approach, preventing social ill, has worked in international aid. It’s rightly been observed that no longer do we just focus on the mental image of starving orphans, now we provide schools and clean water. The same should be true with the delivery of our public services, rather than just help when things hit crisis point.

This is critical because crisis management forms the vast bulk of government spending despite the overwhelming evidence that shows the success of early intervention in a huge variety of contexts. The primary aim of any public service is simply to deliver meaningful improvements to the lives it strives to serve – to those that need it the most. And it is these people that need to be empowered.

The commission is also calling for a Public Service Constitution – legislation to protect services and give power to take out mass action to those who believe they have been failed. So, where people don’t get the services they deserve, they have a right in law to levy a super-complaint and raise their grievance with the government. It may sound like Citizen Smith but it’s about giving a bit more power to the people and helping to drive better public services.

This right would support the commission’s third recommendation – the Community First test, which would encourage more public services to be delivered locally. This would put the services in the hands of those best placed to help, rather than within monolithic structures.

I call for people to get behind Five for the Future and lobby decision-makers and influencers, to support the Public Services Constitution and achieve the services we deserve. We will campaign around budgets, autumn statements and spending reviews. This is too important an issue to leave to chance.

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