The following is the transcript of the Submission from Susan Deacon to the Finance Committee Inquiry into Preventative Spending.
Susan is a national champion for the early years in Scotland and an advisor to the Support from the Start Planning Board
I am grateful for the opportunity to submit evidence to the Finance Committee and welcome the Committee’s current inquiry into preventative spending.
Since the inception of the Scottish Parliament successive Ministers and Governments have recognised the importance of working to tackle the root causes of social problems and, in particular, the importance of taking action to give children the best possible start in life. While there have been differences in emphasis and a variety of approaches to policy delivery and implementation along the way, there has been a consistent direction of travel which has commanded a high level of commitment and support across the political spectrum.
So too is there a vast body of research and evidence – much of which has been presented to the Committee during the course of this Inquiry – which makes a compelling case for early intervention and preventative spend.
This begs the questions as to why we, and by that I mean Scotland, have not yet embedded in our public consciousness and culture, political debate, investment priorities, service design and professional practice a truly preventative approach and, in particular, have not been more successful in delivering a step change in how we support children and families to ensure that the lives of our youngest citizens are built on strong foundations.
Having spent more than 25 years involved in both the study and practice of politics, social policy, management and change, I have grappled with these questions from many angles. Since standing down as a member of the Scottish Parliament in 2007 and, most recently, taking on the role of Early Years’ champion with the Scottish Government, I have focussed much of my energy and efforts in examining the question of how we can get better at making such change happen.
In this submission I therefore offer a distillation of a few of my overriding observations and conclusions on some of the barriers to change and how we might overcome them. The focus of my submission is on children’s early years, but it will be clear that many of my comments have a wider resonance. The opinions offered are my own but are informed by formal study and, critically, by extensive dialogue with a very wide range of individuals and organisations. I am immensely grateful to those who have taken time to share their knowledge, opinions and insights with me. My work on early years is ongoing, and I will be reporting early in the new year, however I hope it is helpful for now to share these thoughts to aid the Committee’s deliberations.
Raising awareness and public ‘buy in’ on the importance of Early Years
The problem is not lack of policy and research – in fact it is arguable that the proliferation of both has created a fog which needs to be cleared. Rather there is a need to build a shared popular understanding of why children’s early years’ experiences are so important and how big a part they plays both in individual life outcomes as well as the future social and economic success of Scotland.
This is important for two reasons. First, we need to create a climate and a context which is conducive to decision makers taking spending decisions which support early years investment – perhaps at the expense of more ‘acute’ or ‘crisis’ interventions. It is therefore important that the public does not see investment in, for example, parenting support, community groups or antenatal education as a ‘soft option’.
The second reason why public awareness and buy in is so important is because, as the current Early Years Framework acknowledges, there is a need for transformational change in how we parent our children and in what we do in the family and in the home. It is therefore not enough to simply limit the discussion to what professionals and public services can do, in fact it is arguable that we have to date got this balance quite wrong.
Such a public discussion needs to be plain speaking and accessible. Too much of our current debate in the policy and political worlds is locked up in ‘techno speak’ and jargon or is over laden with references to the latest policy document, research, tool or process. This needs to change. There can and must be a much more straightforward, ‘human’ discussion about what is going on in our families and our relationships, how that is affecting children and what we can do about it.
Some of the fundamental things which matter to children – love, cuddles, play, bedtime stories, routine etc – cost little but matter a great deal and we should not be afraid to say this.
Developing a shared responsibility for supporting the Early Years
We can observe a pattern which goes something like this. We identify a problem (e.g. childhood obesity, youth disorder, poor literacy) and look to Government to fix it. Typically, Government accepts that challenge; puts in place a process; delivers a strategy; translates that into policy and an (often over-engineered) implementation process and, two or three years on, the problem (not surprisingly) isn’t ‘fixed’. This then becomes portrayed as a failure of the political leadership of the day so, we change Ministers or Government and start the same process all over again.
If ever there was a time to break this cycle, then surely it is now – and where better than in relation to children’s early years?
Government – and other public bodies – have a key role to lead, support and invest but they can only do so much. In allowing too much responsibility to transfer to professionals, and to government and its agencies we have, inadvertently, disempowered people themselves and this has militated against the very behaviours – in the home, the family and in our communities – which are widely understood to be a vital part of our social and economic well being.
I am under no illusions about the scale of the challenge to bring such a shift about and realise that it does not sit comfortably with our prevailing political culture, media debate or simply the way we think as a society. But I would argue that there is a big prize in working to foster this shared responsibility, to do so in a spirit of learning rather than blame and to get beyond the short-termism which bedevils us and stands in the way of sustained and sustainable change.
Getting out of our boxes
For a small country, Scotland has developed a remarkable propensity to subdivide into a multiplicity of ‘boxes’. This is partly reflected in a cluttered public policy and public service landscape and in the propensity of Government, both national and local, to develop multiple parallel strands of policy, activity and investment – but the pattern runs deeper than that. Professional silos and demarcations and organisational and sectoral ‘agendas’ abound – and we can see this running right across sectors and activities.
All the evidence and experience tells us that the kind of support and services which really make a difference to children and families – especially the most vulnerable – need to be flexible, responsive and holistic. We need a really concerted effort to create the structures, systems and practices to bring that about.
There have been many years of ‘clunky’ and costly initiatives to foster better joint working, multi-disciplinary approaches, shared services, integrated plans etc etc, but I think we have to be willing to hold up a mirror and be honest that the impact of this effort and activity has not been on the scale that we might have hoped.
In the medium term – as is now widely acknowledged – there needs to be some rationalisation or consolidation of structures – if for no other reason than ongoing cost and efficiency. But structural change at agency level takes time and is costly and disruptive. In the short term therefore, I would suggest that there is a great deal more that can and must be done to foster the culture and behaviours which enable and support people to work together better across boundaries on the ground. This requires leadership at many levels both to drive such a change – but also to ‘let go’ and to release the potential and the creativity which exists both among our professional workforce and in communities themselves.
Alongside this there requires to be a much stronger and explicit recognition of the transformational impact which a preventative approach – often through small scale, locally developed projects – can have.
Focus on people not process
At the end of the day, it is people that make a difference. Across Scotland we have a wealth of knowledge, commitment and experience of people who at their own hand are leading change and delivering programmes, projects and activities which are having a real and positive impact. With just a little bit more support – or even simply ‘permission’ – they could do so much more.
I am encouraged that both at a national and local level there are a growing number of examples of where a more people-focussed, ‘lighter touch’ approach to change is being developed. e.g. bringing smaller groups of people around the table to drive practical action and change; supporting the development of creative partnerships across sectors and professionals; investing in and placing greater value in individuals who can broker and ‘oil the wheels’ of collaboration across professional and organisational boundaries and with families and communities. But we need to scale this up, and part of that is recognising that ‘no one size fits all’ and that people need to be allowed to get on with leading and driving change.
In short, we need to create a ‘bias for action’ and there is a real urgency to do this. The time, energy and money which is locked up in process is unsustainable and unhelpful. There is, for example, much more that could be done to consolidate and rationalise funding streams and simplify application processes – both nationally and locally – and so reduce the number of hoops and hurdles which professionals and voluntary organisations alike need to jump through – often to access very small amounts of money or support.
Our performance measurement culture also has become too much of an end in itself rather than an aid to performance improvement. There are still too many targets – often competing and conflicting within and across agencies – which get in the way. So too has our desire to develop approaches which are informed by evidence, led to an over dependence on research and analysis at the expense of action. How many research reports and conferences do we need to tell us that play is important to children’s development?
And while I would be the first to say that we should, where possible, measure and evaluate the impact of public investment, I say with feeling that I believe this is one area where we have ‘lost the plot’. Do we really need, and can we really afford – either in terms of direct cost or time delay – to construct a business case, do yet another pilot or carry out a formal evaluation on each and every project and activity before deciding whether to roll out the approach or to just get on with a project?
We know a great deal about what works and does not work, we just have to get on and apply that knowledge. Similarly we need to allow people to get on and do and test localised approaches in real time.
The fact is that it is difficult – in some cases nigh on impossible – to quantify the impact of preventative spend. It is hard to prove that if we had not acted or intervened there would have been a poorer outcome or to demonstrate short term improvements where change may be generational. But existing evidence, not to mention professional judgement, human intuition and experience – and sheer common sense – can take us a very long way.
I acknowledge that there are tools, such as SROI (Social Return on Investment) which can help in this area, but I personally conclude that we should spend less time searching for measurement tools and more time getting on and doing what we know needs done.
I note also that when it comes to societal well being, many of the behaviours and relationships which matter and which do so much to contribute to our human and social capital – simply do not lend themselves to hard edged short term quantification. e.g. The grandad taking his grandchild for a walk in the park; the neighbour offering help and support to the young parents next door; the dads who take wee boys out to play football every week or the new mums who get together over a coffee to just meet and talk together with their babies. Maybe it is time to stop searching for proxies to count and measure all these things and accept that we know what matters to us as human beings.
In conclusion, Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’.
I genuinely believe that much of what we need to do to give children a better start in life is not rocket science but bringing about change will require us to think and work differently in the future.
Susan Deacon is Honorary Professor with the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh University and was previously Professor of Social Change at Queen Margaret University. She was an MSP from 1999-2007 and is a former Scottish Health Minister. She is currently Early Years’ Champion for the Scottish Government.