Let local leaders spend election windfall
Tuesday, November 26, 2019
For the past few weeks, the political parties have been setting out their stalls for the general election.
After a decade dominated by iron rule economics – that the country cannot afford public services that protect its vulnerable citizens – the Resolution Foundation has said that public spending will “rocket” under either a Conservative or Labour government.
As a local authority director, when pressed to cut my budget I could never say with conviction that it was impossible to find some flexibility or efficiency, or to suggest system changes to achieve similar outcomes through different approaches. The problem was that my care, health and education money was committed to be spent on real people in real settings in real time; so simply stopping doing something was never a straightforward option. Instead, I spent an increasing amount of time simply trying to choose the least bad decision I could.
If the Resolution Foundation is even half right, we can expect growth in children’s services funding over the next couple of years, maybe even significant growth. If this is the case, we need to be ready with a series of wise options – as opposed to expedient actions designed to help the Treasury get the money out of the door to satisfy manifesto pledges. For example, we could reverse a lot of cuts and refresh our youth justice system, improving its shoddy run-down secure estate. Or we could spend wisely on implementing a civilised evidence-informed restorative justice system, raise the age of criminal responsibility and enable youth offending services to provide holistic child, family and community interventions that prevent reoffending and promote the resilience of young people. Then we could afford to run a decent secure service for the very few young people for whom it is necessary and effective.
If we face the challenge of implementing new, comprehensive child-centred policy, we also need to heed the lessons from previous growth eras. The Children Act 2004 and Every Child Matters (ECM) aimed to both deliver wholesale, sustainable improvement in our child protection system, and tackle inequalities for groups of children facing social and economic exclusion. ECM was a visionary, well-funded, evidence-driven programme, but it failed to have the lasting impact it could or should have done.
The decision of the coalition government to pull money out of the system from day one and to legislate to atomise local systems as a political priority certainly didn’t help. The bigger problem was that we adopted the wrong theory of change. The core of ECM was mainly driven by centrally controlled target setting which has since been shown to be incapable of driving sustainable change in complex systems. This led to the veneration of one-dimensional indicators which dominated local action.
If we are to have money to spend, let us hope the new government follows the science and puts it under the control of local systems, trusting them to use it wisely.