What do we need to make preventive programmes work?

Give me the child till the age of seven and I will show you the man.” This pithy Jesuit line sums up official views on prevention (with a possible revision upwards to the early teens). If children are brought up well we can prevent them making bad choices and becoming problem adults. Problems cost big money to fix so investing small sums in prevention seems to make sense. It sounds lovely, but does it work? I think it can, but I know it often doesn’t. If we want to make prevention work I think we need to ensure the following:

Think small not big: To save money prevention programmes need to be well targeted. If everyone is subject to them we won’t save money. We need to identify who is likely to go astray. We can then focus resources on these individuals. This is problematic. Potentially we would be treating designated sections of the population as potential troublemakers. In many cases these people would not have done anything wrong. We need to decide what the ‘trigger’ that leads to prevention activity is. This is a delicate process. Trialling an incremental approach where small scale programmes have to demonstrate their success before gaining greater funding seems appropriate.

Encourage competition: Government programmes are often large in scope; they act according to centrally determined criteria, they are staffed by public servants and are permanent in nature. Programmes often fail but in the usual manner and thereby persist. Preventive programmes should be small scale, with a mix of public and private sector staff. They should be free to determine their own policies and work practices. Many preventive schemes will fail and this is not a bad thing. Their funding should be transferred to successful schemes. The role of the local council is as a contractor of services rather than their provider. The system should be designed so funding can be cut at will from schemes which are failing. This means that rival preventive schemes will need to fight for funding.

Beware of perverse incentives: Consider how these schemes look to those not involved. There is a perverse incentive for children to act badly if preventive programmes include activities ordinary people would consider to be treats. Many families may find it hard to afford treats for their children so treats should only be offered in exchange for genuine progress. No child should be seen to be benefitting from bad behaviour. The programme will clearly need to be designed to develop children’s moral character not just to keep them busy. Possible options could include combined cadet forces, after school language classes, competitive sports and sponsored internships.

Local democracy means diversity – defend this: Preventive schemes will differ by area. There is no standardised project that can be applied everywhere. We should defend democracy which is based on postcodes. A lottery is a random thing. Democracy allows people to determine what sort of communities they want to live in. Some may want to implement a cadet programme. Others may want to sponsor yoga or a creative writing class. We can debate the merits of these schemes but that is what local democracy is about and we should embrace it.

Know what success is and how to prove it: The worst type of preventative scheme is that which seems like a nice thing to do but can’t be proven to have changed anything. Discretionary schemes will be cut substantially in the spending cuts. Preventative schemes need to clearly point to cost savings. We need metrics that can prove causation. We need an agreement with central government departments to share the savings achieved by these preventative measures.

Link money to results: Programmes which are successful need to be rewarded. Local leaders need to be able to quickly redeploy resources to other areas. Contracts with private providers should be flexible with clear performance related break clauses. Programmes run by public servants are more inflexible. If the scheme fails can these people be fired? Will they need to be redeployed? What are the costs involved? Prevention programmes need to prove they can deliver. Delivering means not just the absence of negative factors, it means positive change. People subject to these initiatives need to be obtaining qualifications, developing skills, on the path to a career or developing the habits of a productive life e.g. discipline and hard work. Not burning or destroying things is not a sufficient degree of success.

The views expressed above are my personal views. Some people may disagree with the factors I think important. Some may have additions they would like to make. We will be interested in your thoughts on how to make preventive schemes an essential part of local authorities plans. What factors do you think councils need to put in place to ensure preventive schemes thrive?

Glyn Gaskarth is a policy manager specialising in criminal justice policy. You can contact him on glyn.gaskarth@lgiu.org.uk.