Steve Aos interview: Investment advice for children’s social services

US social care analyst Steve Aos's visit to Britain has attracted the attention of governmentministers. A former economist,he applies Wall Street tools tosocial care interventions. Judy Cooper met him

US social care analyst Steve Aos’s visit to Britain has attracted the attention of governmentministers. A former economist,he applies Wall Street tools tosocial care interventions. Judy Cooper met him


Steve Aos has spent the past 15 years devising a model to assess the cost effectiveness of children’s services, youth justice and health. He is advising politicians in the US state of Washington on the best use of taxpayers’ dollars in these areas.

Aos is in the UK to give the Dartington Social Research Unit’s annual summer lecture. Although the unit often flies over speakers from the US, the Aos lecture has prompted by far their biggest response. Ministers Tim Loughton and Iain Duncan Smith are attending the evening reception, unheard of in the history of the event despite repeated invitations to various government ministers.

As he sits in a deep armchair at the Commonwealth Club, the assistant director of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy is softly spoken but the novel nature of his ideas are both sharp and direct.

His model, he says, is the same that investment advisers on Wall Street would use. “There are three steps. The first is to know what works. What are the possibilities that currently exist? What will give me the outcomes I want? So if you’re an investor you might be looking for long-term investments that will allow you to retire in 15 years. In children’s services you’re looking for interventions that show definite results in reducing youth crime for example.

“Secondly I need a cost-benefit analysis on those options. I want a list of all of these options and I want them ranked based on potential return on investment. Much in the same way as a consumer magazine like Which? will rank consumer products based on value for money.

“Lastly I want to invest in a bunch of these ideas, so which ones are the most complementary? What kind of portfolio of investments should I have? What combination will net me the largest return on my investment?”

The model is a product of the first 15 years of his career when he applied much the same concepts to the energy industry – assessing the cost-benefit ratio of coal power versus nuclear and, later, versus energy efficiency.

“When I decided I had had enough of thermal units of energy and decided it might be an idea to work with people for a change I was amazed that this kind of approach didn’t seem to exist in other public policy areas. So I thought there must be some worth in trying it. After all, we all want to see the same outcomes – we want to know what works and what is the best use of public funds.”

However, even in the US, he admits, he is hampered by the same problem as currently exists in the UK – the size of the research base he is working off is not huge. “We work in various fields and different fields have differing amounts of rigorous scientific studies to draw on and come to conclusions. In the area of child welfare, abuse and areas such as out-of-area placements, there are relatively few studies of clear causal pathways than in other areas such as juvenile justice for example.”

He is heartened by the fact that some of the best research in the field began about 10 years ago and is now beginning to produce results.

He also points out that the scientific community is also starting to do more work researching softer outcomes, such as emotional impact of interventions, which is invaluable for social care decision-making.

He has spent the past three days at Dartington looking into whether his approach can be adapted for the UK. “A lot of things come into play because we have a different system, a different way of sentencing juveniles for example. But after our discussions it seems as though there are definite possibilities to make it work. It’s actually more possible to do than I had thought before I came over.”

He is modest enough to say he does not know whether he will return to the UK but, given the attention he has received on his first trip, it seems likely.

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This article is published in the 1 July issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Looking to net a large return

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