John Glen is a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, PPS to Sajid Javid, and MP for Salisbury.
As we look forward to this week’s Queen’s Speech, it must be recognised that a focus on tackling the gravest social problems will need to have innovation at its heart. Whether the matter to hand is getting the persistently unemployed back into work or meeting the Government’s ambition to halve the disability employment gap, successive governments have struggled to find effective centrally conceived solutions. The conventional models aren’t sufficient; fresh thinking is needed at the local level.
Local authorities and city regions now have the freedom to innovate, but they must be actively enabled to do so. We need to do two key things. First, we need to encourage a wide range of innovative pilots. Often a local authority will replicate a pilot programme already being piloted in a nearby area, rather than develop a new programme that suits its own population, economic challenges and infrastructure provision. That means that there is not as big a pool of innovation as there could be.
However, these programmes don’t all need to be home-grown pilots. Some could be partner schemes that have worked well in one area, but need to be tried in different areas with similar conditions. Resurgo’s Spear project in West London, for example, sees 75 per cent success rates in helping some of the hardest to help young people into sustained employment. The Department for Work and Pensions should offer local authorities a ‘menu’ of possible ‘proven’ projects and programmes to pilot, but with a consistent yet comprehensive format for data collection so that outcomes can be evaluated. Programmes need to measured so that, if effective, they can then be expanded quickly.
That brings us to the second thing we need to do – accelerate the growth of projects that have been proven to be successful. Safe Families for Children, for example, enables trustworthy host families to look after children whilst family crises can be resolved. Starting in the North East in 2012, the programme has already expanded into Merseyside, Scotland, Wales and the Midlands. The Cinnamon Network has a dedicated ‘recognised projects’ stream for projects which are scaleable and replicable on a larger basis, providing an ideal model for delivering successful outcomes across a range of social problems.
So it is very refreshing that Stephen Crabb, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, signalled his enthusiasm for JobCentre Plus offices to partner with third-party organisations when he came before the Work and Pensions Select Committee recently – an approach which is needed across the whole landscape of social policy. We need to encourage collaborative innovation both at the start, in encouraging as wide a range of innovative pilot schemes as possible and, at the end, by replicating those approaches that have been proven to work by rigorous evidence.
However, for this sort of approach to be a success, there needs to be a fundamental shift in how budgets and savings are perceived. The Government’s Life Chances strategy provides a perfect opportunity for this to process to start. In seeking to improve life chances, Ministers have acknowledged that early intervention is important not just in achieving key policy aims but also in making long-term savings. But, too often tight, budgets in social policy mean immediate costs need to be cut, leading to potential higher costs in the future. What is needed is smarter budgeting – that uses evidence on what works to establish quantifiable future savings. Current cost pressures can be managed when the most effective programmes are deployed confidently so savings can be achieved. Sometimes that will mean spending more in years one and two to see the benefits in the medium to long term.
Local authorities need leadership from central government on data collection and evaluation, so that local pilot programmes can be interrogated for whether they really do make effective savings. At the level of central government, the Office for Budget Responsibility needs to be fully involved in the process of quantifying future savings from policy interventions at the micro level. This would mean both that these interventions will receive the scrutiny of a credible independent body, and that these cost-saving innovations will be laid out and scrutinised side by side with the public finances.
Real opportunities exist to put in place transformative interventions that will advance the Government’s reform agenda for tackling the most challenging social problems. I am not arguing for the signing of blank cheques, or for rolling deficit targets where predicted budget savings are forever put off into the future. Effective financial scrutiny matters – but, if life chances are to be at the heart of the Queen’s Speech, innovation in how we fund programmes and measure outcomes will need to be there too.