The Conservative Party’s 2015 election campaign was misguided, it seemed to me at the time. Leave aside the blatant bribes to the better off. The message narrowly focused on individual effort, personal responsibility and private reward. The Conservatives seemed to see labour mobility as an undiluted good, family formation as irrelevant, and economic growth as the sole indicator of national progress. Whereas – I thought – people wanted their leaders to care about communities, about families, and about wellbeing.
I was wrong, of course. The voters strongly backed the party of tax cuts and welfare cuts, and didn’t seem to miss the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism. As in 2010, when the Big Society agenda flopped on the doorstep, those of us who feel the Conservative Party is nothing without social justice proved hopeless electoral strategists.
As others have pointed out, however, Lynton Crosby wasn’t hired to set the direction for a Conservative government, or to reinvent the meaning of conservatism. He was hired to help the party win an election, which he did admirably. The task of government now begins, and social justice can be at its heart.
Some big ideas are aligning in favour of a new ‘social strategy’ for a centre-right government. In this essay I outline these ideas and attempt to bring them together into a rhetorical framework which a David Cameron-led government could articulate publicly and fulfil in policy.
The first great idea is the simplest, in principle at least. The 1945 welfare state was built to meet occasional, exceptional need, to help people cope with the rare and temporary afflictions of sickness or unemployment. Developments in technology mean that a large number of people now consume healthcare for long periods, while shifts in the economy and the perverse incentives of the system itself mean the same for welfare. We have a system designed for the few to use briefly, used by the many for the long term.
Rather than a system built to react to acute need, we need one that prevents need developing in the first place. As the work of Carey Oppenheim’s Early Intervention Foundation and David Robinson’s Early Action Taskforce has shown, we spend billions on redressing problems that millions, spent earlier and better, would have prevented occurring.
Here is a noble ambition for government: to shift policy and spending towards prevention and away from cure. In the same way that departments have recently been tasked by the Chancellor to present options for reducing their budgets by 25-40 per cent, they should be told to consult about how, over the long term, they can reduce demand for remedial services by similar proportions. If the wider academic and practitioner communities were engaged, a great wave of imagination and creative thinking would follow.
They would be needed, because the challenges here are multiple and notorious. How do you afford the extra investment upfront, even if you are confident of larger savings later – when that ‘later’ might be a decade or more? And what if you’re not confident: can you justify paying for prevention now when you think you may need to pay for cure later anyway? How do you allocate the spending and the policy effort, when the intervention is required in one department’s remit (for instance, Health) but the benefit is felt in another’s (Work and Pensions)? And how do you attribute success: was it really that parenting class when the child was two that led to his success at GCSEs, or was it the nutrition programme he did at age seven, or – more likely – was it nothing we can possibly know about?
The answers to these challenges come partly in the other strands of what I call the social strategy, below. But the main answer is political will. These are structural and even technical barriers to an idea that makes sense intellectually and which one can see working in practice. The job of leadership is to demand the idea is fulfilled, and stand accountable for it.
Assets not liabilities
The next idea flows naturally from early intervention. If we believe in preventing problems before they develop, then the right strategy is not corrective – mitigating negatives – but nurturing – accentuating positives.
There is a category of young people known as NEETs – Not in Education, Training or Employment. Imagine your official identify being an acronym beginning with ‘Not’. Yet that is how, in its genuine benevolence and concern, the welfare state applies itself to the task of supporting young people to be the best they can be.
The same syndrome, perhaps more understandably but even more disastrously, applies to offenders. The label which identifies this group and determines their status as subjects of the state – their existence, in official eyes – is an affront to social decency. They are defined by an identity that ought not to exist at all; the system wishes them obliterated. Prisoners and probation clients feel this, and often articulate it when they talk about ‘the system’: ‘they don’t care about us’.
The Metropolitan Police was once accused of institutional racism. The welfare state suffers institutional snobbery – the sense that its beneficiaries are inferior, albeit deserving of sympathy and help. Defined by their ‘needs’ rather than their capabilities, passions or strengths, people are regarded as liabilities to be either ameliorated or written off. It is no surprise that this, sometimes called the ‘deficit’ model of welfare, creates a catastrophic relationship between the person who receives the service and the system or professional providing it.
The ‘asset’ model is different. At Only Connect we call it ‘Handshake not Handout’. We are not here to give our members (as we call our ‘service users’ – a banned phrase) unconditional welfare. We are here to help them realise their own potential, as adults with agency and responsibility. This engenders a wholly different relationship, where staff and volunteers are not patronising do-gooders and beneficiaries are not servile or cynical ‘users’ – both are fellow adults on a common mission.
Of course, we are under no illusions – if we were, they have been dispelled by experience – how hard it is to get a career criminal with mental health problems, an unsupportive family and no positive experience of the working world, to fulfil his potential as a citizen, worker and father. But it is only by seeing the people we work with in those terms that change can happen; and it does happen often.
Instead of social deficit reduction, Britain needs social growth; rather than mitigating society’s liabilities we need to maximise its assets. We need to nurture a generation of capable, resilient men and women, self-reliant and mutually-reliant – able to help themselves and each other – and ultimately reduce the need for expensive interventions, whether preventative or remedial.
So rather than programmes for criminals or drug addicts or homeless people or NEETS or the mentally ill, we need programmes for entrepreneurs and gardeners and coders and artists. This goes beyond training directly for the relevant industry: the experience of learning gardening or coding is beneficial in itself, whether it leads to a career in the same field or not. Likewise we need programmes that are not vocational at all, such as (most crucially) parenting, or healthy living, or emotional self-management.
In policy terms, whether aimed at employment skills or life skills, programmes should only be supported which have a clear focus on maximising agency, not just meeting needs. To win a government contract for public service delivery, a provider should be required to demonstrate how it helps its clients gain self-reliance and personal growth; how it maximises the value inherent in the people it supports, not merely overcomes their difficulties for them.
This is a rhetoric – describing unemployed young people not as victims of an unfair economy and a heartless politics, but as wasted talents with a contribution to make – that a centre-right Government could adopt naturally and honestly. But it does require courage to justify the sort of work that needs doing, and compassion to understand the long circuitous routes that many people take from chaos to responsibility.
As this suggests, to do what needs doing we need to move beyond the public sector. Below I address the enormous financial challenge that all these extra gardening and parenting courses will represent. Here I want to focus on the delivery mechanism.
Public services reflect the liberal, egalitarian state they are an extension of: they see people as independent and identical, without contingent relationships, to be treated the same in all circumstances. That’s fine in a court of law; it’s not fine when we’re talking about how to support a troubled teenager or, for that matter, a criminal convicted in court but now needing rehabilitation.
The fact is, we might be morally free but we are not independent of others; it was problematic relationships that made the trouble for that teenager, that criminal, and positive relationships (with family, peers, professionals or volunteers) that will make things right. And we might be morally ‘equal’ but we are not the same: we don’t need services which are ‘fair’ but ones which are right for us.
Those positive relationships and that bespoke support are best enabled by the social sector, not the state. Charities and social enterprises, mutuals and co-ops have the flexibility, local knowledge and deep knowledge of their subject that can make real change; they also operate with values (whether faith-based or merely humane) that larger bureaucracies struggle to match, and which represent perhaps the greatest and most important resource that is brought to the fight against poverty.
However, there is a problem. The social sector should be the vehicle of the Government’s social strategy. But right now, that vehicle is hardly roadworthy. We have a million subscale, fragmented charities, many doing great work but on a shoe string, with no cohesive mission or way of working with each other or with the public sector. Capricious donors and commissioners make for a perilously spiky income profile which, combined with high fixed costs (mostly on staff, who themselves don’t always operate in a way that maximises profitability or productivity), means cashflow is a permanent, debilitating headache. And the normal alleviator of cashflow problems for commercial businesses, available capital, hardly exists for charities.
Pioneered in the US, ‘collective impact’ is a model of social sector partnership based on shared goals and measurement and, crucially, a properly resourced ‘backbone’ infrastructure whose only purpose is the care of the network. As a model of social welfare provision it maintains all the upside of small, independent local charities – their values and flexibility and knowledge – but overcomes the downside. It enables professionalism and scale, access to capital and, critically, a network of information exchange which means the ecology of local charities becomes coherent and mutually supportive.
Only Connect has recently launched a sister initiative based on collective impact, the West London Zone for Children and Young People. Modelled on the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, it is an attempt to deliver a joined-up pipeline of preventative services throughout childhood and youth, and over time enable a package of bespoke support for 12,000 young people (20 per cent of the whole) living in three square miles of inner west London.
There is a great role for government here. The public sector mirrors the dysfunction and disconnection of the social sector, and a mechanism by which they can pool information and cohere around common goals would be transformative. But beyond the role of local public agencies, government can directly incentivise collaboration by empowering, and where possible financing, infrastructure bodies to act as the ‘backbones’ of collective impact initiatives.
Early intervention, an ‘assets’ model for commissioning services, and collective impact require a revolution in the way we finance social welfare and in the culture of public services. But they will be fully enabled by a greater reform in the structure of government itself.
One strong argument for early intervention is that its benefits are widespread. A good parenting programme can lead to positive outcomes in health, education, the economy and the social environment. In the deficit-reduction terms of Whitehall, that means fiscal savings to the health, education, benefits and criminal justice budgets.
Trying to stitch these budgets together at a national level is incredibly difficult, requiring both energetic leadership and intensive technical effort. A more comprehensive strategy, which would enable the natural pooling of budgets around effective interventions, is to devolve responsibilities from across Whitehall to local government.
This is the fourth great theme of the social strategy: radical devolution. George Osborne and Greg Clark are pushing this agenda vigorously in the context of local economic growth and job creation. A similar devolution programme needs to be part of the Government’s social strategy: enabling cities and regions to manage their own public services and pool budgets – and the benefits from effective work – across their departments.
Impact investment and Payment by Results
How do we pay for all this? Early intervention will save money down the road – the Early Intervention Foundation estimate that spending £5 billion now in preventive services would save £17 billion later on in no-longer-needed remedial services – but that upfront £5 billion needs to be found first.
Similarly, investing in people as assets before they turn into liabilities means finding money now that isn’t currently available. Those gardening projects or coding academies are cheaper than the Pupil Referral Unit and the prison place that might come later if the projects didn’t happen, but they are chronologically earlier, and currently they aren’t being paid for. Where’s the money going to come from? As mentioned previously, the Government’s spending review, is looking for further cuts of 25-40 per cent in public spending.
Social investment is the answer. Private money can capitalise expensive preventative work, taking the risk on behalf of charities or mutuals, often small and local, which can do the work but can’t afford to wait for payment. But paying later is exactly what government should do: it should pay for early intervention, but pay for it in arrears.
The social investment cycle – working capital upfront from investors, repaid by outcomes payments from government – is easy to explain and justify. Making it actually happen is harder, for many of the reasons given above in connection with early intervention. The Coalition Government made great strides to create a social investment market, committing £600 million to Big Society Capital and incentivising investors through tax relief.
We need further leadership now to persuade commissioners to complete the circle by pledging outcome payments. These payments are the market that charities should be chasing, and configuring their own work accordingly: ‘selling outcomes’, in short, having properly priced the work and added a margin for profit – or reserves, in the nonprofit world. At Only Connect we estimate an outcome – a young offender entering sustained employment – at £5,000. It’s a lot, from one perspective – but not when you think about the investment middle-class children get in the course of their childhoods, and nothing at all when you consider the cost of failure: the prison place, the children in care, the health problems, the benefits payments. Discerning commissioners will recognise the bargain they are offered.
At the time of writing Jeremy Corbyn MP is leading the polls to be Labour leader. Even if he doesn’t win, it is certain that for the next four years there will be a left-wing leader of the Labour Party who believes in centralised public services and unconditional benefit entitlements.
The road is open for the Conservatives to present an alternative vision of social justice. This requires real commitment from senior politicians. To be the party of ‘working people’ means an agenda that goes beyond work, to the way families and communities function and support each other. That means harnessing all the themes I lay out above – early intervention, the assets model, collective impact, localism, and social investment.
Together, these agendas form a timely and coherent policy agenda which can empower individuals and communities in disadvantage to be among the assets not the liabilities on the national balance sheet. As an agenda it might not win elections, but it justifies winning them.