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One Hundred Days For Early Action: Time for Government to Put Prevention First

15/04/2015 11:50 BST | Updated 14/06/2015 10:59 BST

In a world of coalitions, manifesto promises are even more open to change than they would be following a more predictable general election. As political ideologies will inevitably clash in any coalition agreement, compromises are going to be necessary. However, early action - preventative work and policy aimed at people throughout their lifecycle - is one agenda that all parties can support

Indeed, it's notable that all the manifestos launched so far have contained some reference to prevention, whether in health services, policing or the environment. Early action could therefore be a great starting point for any coalition agreement, particularly as whoever is in charge following the election will inherit a country of escalating needs and constrained resources.

2015-04-14-1429028002-6321468-100_DAYS_COVER250PX.jpg This is why the Early Action Task Force gathered together a respected group of leading experts and thinkers with decades of experience of government. The result is One Hundred Days for Early Action, in which the essayists suggest steps that the next government could take to build a society that prioritises an alternative approach: preventing problems from occurring rather than, as now, struggling with the consequences. It would be, in the words of our first essayist Guardian Journalist Polly Toynbee, one that is "fairer, greener and more generous spirited".

Another of our contributors to this collection Danny Kruger, former speechwriter for David Cameron and Chief Executive of Only Connect, has spoken about the shift in the role of the government from state as provider in the post war years to state as a commissioner more recently. He imagines an imminent further shift towards state as preventer in the years ahead. It may sound bombastic, but when we look around and see where the flow is taking us we think the truth is inescapable. This is an idea whose time is overdue.

Some of our writers, remembering Gordon Brown's dramatic activity in the opening of the 1997 government, suggest that early action needs a "Bank of England moment" - sweeping and decisive action immediately after the election. Others urge a more patient approach, listening and learning and sharing ideas before doing anything at all. Most agree that language is more important than ever in the early days. Government officials, parliamentary colleagues and the wider public will be alert to the signs. When electioneering is over, at least for a while, what is it that the Prime Minister (and his deputy) really, really wants to do?

Some experts suggest practical programmes. Professor Richard Layard, the UK's leading expert on happiness and wellbeing, recommends, amongst other ideas, Parenting Classes and Incredible Years group training; and LSE's Professor Anne Power a Troubled Youth programme learning from the Troubled Families initiative.

Of course every new minister will have their own favourites jostling for the PM's attention and raising the thorny issue of priorities. Fortunately there are some possibilities where multiple benefits can ripple out to other agendas. Former senior civil servant and chair of the Centre for London Liz Meek, for instance, points out the close links between mental illness and physical ill-health. All such new expenditure programmes should, suggests former cabinet secretary Lord O'Donnell, be cleared by a new institution - the Office of Taxpayer Responsibility to ensure that "our accountability system is focused on preventing mistakes".

Other authors also focus on the workings of Government believing that, with the machinery in place, transition to earlier action will gradually course through the system - longer term planning focused on delivery of outcomes, ten year testing, and a change in the rules allowing expenditure on early action to be treated like capital investment are suggested by many of our contributors, and a "spot purchasing outcomes revolution" recommends Matt Robinson, a former deputy director in the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit.

"Better system leadership" says Rob Whiteman, CEO of the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accounting, is absolutely critical and others agree. Nowhere is this more important than at the heart of Government. Some think that responsibility for driving the early action agenda should reside in No10, others at the Treasury. Either way the Unit behind the leader (and there should be a Unit) must be central and it must be powerful and it must have the authority to lead change across Government - this is, above all, a cross-departmental agenda. Ultimately early action can be about saving money, not spending more, but without structural and systemic reform, vigorously endorsed from the top, change will be limited and, very likely, unsustainable.

This doesn't necessarily mean that every development must be a step in the dark. New ministers can be suckers for novelty and, of course, an appetite for innovation is not generally a bad thing, but nor is it always needed. Sometimes old ideas can work well but need testing more thoroughly. We need to know more about what works best. Dan Corry, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital and former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, Carey Oppenheim and Haroon Chowdry of the Early Intervention Foundation stress the importance of effective evaluation not least because, as the NAO's Michael Kell observes"what gets measured, gets managed".

Governments are of course dependent on popular support and given the finely balanced state of the parties in the run up to the election it would be surprising if the new Prime Minister was not more sensitive than most to the proclivities of a uncertain electorate, even in the first 100 days. All the more important then for a wider movement, to support these big changes and also, as the former head of the Prime Minister's strategy unit Ray Shostak suggests, to "get early action trending" by working on the "small practical ways to readjust the system".

Stephen Tall from the Education Endowment Foundation quotes H.L. Mencken "for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong". In the experience of the Task Force pretty much everyone agrees that preventing problems from occurring, rather than picking up the pieces afterwards, is a broadly sensible approach but it isn't easy. Financial procedures, operational models and deeply embedded organisational cultures get in the way. That's why, though it may be common sense, it isn't yet common practice.

The new PM and his or her ministerial team will face many challenges in their first 100 days but in almost every area of Government there will be the same strategic choice - prevent now or pay tomorrow. The implications are challenging but it would be a mistake of enduring importance, and a missed opportunity, if the new Prime Minister did not declare a bold and unequivocal preference.

In rhetoric at least, all the parties are signed up to early action. One Hundred Days for Early Action provides practical ideas to put this intention into practice.