Early intervention: It’s time we commissioned outcomes

Instead of buying a service, why not buy an outcome, says Michael Little

Instead of buying a service, why not buy an outcome, says Michael Little

The word on the street is that, unless it is early intervention, it is going to be cut. The smart councils will have an early intervention portfolio on which to build. But many will be starting from scratch and dealing with budget cuts at the same time. How can they get started?

Think about family support – a series of well-meaning low level supports for families on the brink of being sucked into the child protection system or a range of other heavy-end provision. What does it achieve?

Family support is well-meaning but it is hard to define and its objectives are vague. Little is known, for example, about value for money spent on family support.

Early intervention is different. It is specific about which child and family outcomes it will affect. A social and emotional regulation programme properly implemented as part of a school curriculum will deliver happier, better behaved children who do better at school.

I could be technical and put numbers on these three outcomes. I could be boring and detail the costs and economic benefits. The latter are greater than the former. Why? Because early intervention really does reduce the number of kids knocking at the door of social care, special education and youth justice.

As the belt around local government expenditure is drawn tight, there is bound to be much greater interest in the more precise mechanisms for supporting families offered by early intervention.

And that will mean different commissioning procedures. Instead of buying a service, why not buy an outcome? If there really are economic benefits why not attract some outside investors? How about supporting social enterprises to go about this work in a businesslike way, while maintaining the values that underpin the practitioner’s motivations.

It is doom and gloom for children’s services. But there is some light. With a strong hand it can be made to shine on child outcomes and the public purse.

Michael Little is the co-director of the Social Research Unit based in Dartington

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This article is published in the 16 September 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “It’s time we commissioned outcomes”

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