What’s preventing preventative policy?

governmentBy Stephen Lochore

I recently blogged about the potential benefits of preventative policy-making – an approach that aims to prevent or reduce the risk of social and economic problems. But if prevention really is better than cure, why isn’t prevention universally accepted and implemented?  What are the challenges, barriers and limits to preventative policy?

  • Funding and budgets are usually short-term while preventative policy requires long-term commitment. It may take decades for a preventative approach to deliver outcomes, yet require significant up-front spending. When faced with shrinking budgets, it may seem expedient to cut preventative spending rather than services that more immediately benefit local communities.
  • Changing priorities can undermine preventative approaches.  Much political attention is currently focused towards economic development, and it has become harder for many public bodies to maintain spending on activities that don’t explicitly target economic growth, even if they would save money in the long-term.  Public opinion fluctuates, and often focuses on local solutions rather than high-level holistic approaches.  Yet preventative policy often depends on long-term commitment.
  • Preventative intervention is difficult to evaluate – partly because of the long time-scale, sometimes compounded by a lack of obvious measures of success, but also because the problems such interventions try to address usually cut across policy domains, making it difficult to determine the net impact of any individual initiative among an ever-changing set of interrelated interventions.  To put it another way, preventative policy faces problems of both measurement and attribution.  This puts it at a disadvantage when there is an expectation to demonstrate measurable progress.
  • There is limited evidence about ‘what works’ in preventative policy.  The policy-making cycle operates at a different timescale to that needed to create a robust evidence base.  The Big Lottery suggests longitudinal studies of at least five years to support research into prevention.  People often quip that politicians want quick answers… the other side of the argument is that researchers only want to give comprehensive answers!
  • Public sector budgeting isn’t well suited to those ‘wicked’ issues that cut across departmental and service lines. Preventative spend in one area may save money in another by reducing demand for services.

Long timescales, interdependent issues, and limited evidence, all mean that preventative intervention carries a high level of uncertainty, and can be seen as risky.

There are also some general tensions within policymaking that are exacerbated when taking a preventative approach.

  • Participatory policymaking – communities may prioritise locally identifiable outcomes rather than long-term, holistic interventions.  Issues that are important at a local level (e.g. noise pollution, traffic congestion, litter) are not always the same as those policymakers seek to address, particularly using a preventative approach.
  • Centralised processes to establish good practice and monitor progress versus greater autonomy for localised decision-making and freedom from central interference.
  • Using evidence to follow established practice balanced against policy and research innovation to try and to evaluate new approaches. The relative paucity of evidence about some areas of prevention and early intervention mean that policy risks need to be taken, and policymakers have to accept uncertain returns and some risk to reputation.
  • Activities that have a predictable return or accepted value versus those that have potential for greater positive impact but less certainty.

Despite these challenges, prevention is a policy imperative throughout the UK, if for no other reason than its potential to reduce future public spending. However, it’s particularly notable in Scottish policymaking.

The Scottish Government designated prevention as one of its priorities for reform in its response to the Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services. The influence of the preventative principle can be seen in the Single Outcome Agreements (SOAs) produced by local authorities and their respective Community Planning Partnership. The guidance to CPPs issued by Scottish Government in 2012 explicitly stated that SOAs “should promote early intervention and preventative approaches”.

Prevention aligns with some of the other principles behind the CPP process in Scotland and public service reform elsewhere  – the idea of co-operation between levels of government, pooling resources and sharing benefits.  It may be risky, but it’s an imperative that all organisations involved in funding, designing and delivering public services ought to embrace.


Further reading

Christie Commission on the future delivery of public services

Climate change, Single Outcome Agreements and Community Planning Partnerships

Renewing Scotland’s public services: priorities for reform in response to the Christie Commission

Preventative spending and the ‘Scottish policy style’

The preventative agenda in Scotland is a worthy initiative, but the tensions inherent in its execution may yet undermine it

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on public policymaking. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members.

How preventative policymaking could benefit local authorities

Crossing out problems and writing solutions on a blackboard.By Stephen Lochore

Preventative policy and spending aim to address the root causes of social and economic problems. In public policy, it’s most commonly applied in the fields of health and social care, early years education, welfare and criminal justice (reducing offending).

Early in November, I spoke at a seminar organised by the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change and SCVO which explored preventative policy in Scotland.  While we inevitably spent some time discussing the challenges, there was a strong collective feeling about the advantages of a preventative approach to policymaking.  Continue reading

Big challenges – and rewards – for Big Data in the third sector

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

By Stephen Lochore

‘Big data’ is big news! Along with its close relative ‘open data’, it’s part of the latest thinking about how managing information can help bring about better services. The rough idea is to use new technology and approaches to understand, analyse, link and where possible share large complex datasets to generate new insights and improve decisions.

In 2012, the UK government identified big data as one of eight ‘great technologies’ that support science and business, and since then has invested in a range of big data initiatives through the UK Research Councils. This includes the ESRC’s Big Data Network, whose current phase involves establishing four academic research centres to make data from local government and business more accessible.

In Scotland, an industry-led data lab, backed by public funding, is due to open late in 2014 to develop new data science capabilities.

Most of the focus has been on private sector innovation, higher education research capabilities and public sector datasets. Little has been said about the third or voluntary sector, which is surprising:

  • Third sector organisations provide a wide range of services – policymakers need to understand the sector’s structure and capabilities;
  • Many third sector organisations gather information that could help improve the design and delivery of services – they work directly with local communities including vulnerable groups who can be reluctant to engage in formal consultations.

Fortunately, there are a few initiatives which are looking at these issues.

On Monday 13 October I went to the first of a series of workshops organised by Scottish Universities Insight Institute into the opportunities and challenges of using data for Scotland’s third sector organisations.

Continue reading

Taming the information jungle

TonyphotoIn the latest of our series of posts looking at the work of housing associations, Tony McLaughlin explains how managing information supports activities across the Wheatley Group.

By Tony McLaughlin, Research and Policy Officer, the Wheatley Group

Comparing the volume of information we come across as a ‘jungle’ may seem a little hyperbolic, but for my colleagues and I in the Research and Development Team at the Wheatley Group, Scotland’s leading housing, care and community regeneration organisation, it can certainly seem that way.

Managing information on behalf of our colleagues in other parts of the business to ensure that they have the data and information they need at their fingertips is a core part of what we do. However, keeping on top of the information we are bombarded with can be a task in itself.

In keeping with the jungle analogy, the sources where we get information from can be quite different beasts. A quick survey of our team found that collectively we are on the mailing lists of over eighty organisations, including many specialists beyond our core business of housing, care and regeneration. These mailing lists are just the tip of the information iceberg. If you take into account social media, the number of information sources would be likely to multiply several times.

We are responsible for supporting activities across a large organisation which provides services to over 100,000 people, and employs more than 2,100 people across Central Scotland. With a team of seven people, and many competing demands on our time, we have to be smart about what we focus on. We appreciate services that cut down the amount of time we have to spend identifying useful resources. It’s important for us to provide information that is specific to the needs of our business and which supports excellence in everything that we do. We do this in a number of ways, two of which are given as examples below.

We produce an ‘Insight’ bulletin, which is aimed at leaders and is a short themed think-piece which informs strategy and service development. Recent editions have focused on diverse topics such as customer segmentation, value for money, working with communities and employment trends. We are planning editions on digital inclusion, care and support, challenging poverty, and innovative funding.

We also organise a series of seminars for staff at all levels of our organisation and for relevant people from our partner agencies. These are typically hosted at our purpose-built learning and conference centre, The Academy, which is located at our Glasgow headquarters. Our most recent seminars were arranged as part of the corporate partnership which the Wheatley Group has with the professional body for housing, the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH).

The first of these was a visit by CIH Chief Executive, Grainia Long, to address our leadership team on the challenges faced by the housing sector in the coming years. The second was a presentation on our innovative ‘Frontline Futures’ research aimed at frontline staff, which examines the role of the frontline housing professional in light of new challenges facing social housing providers and customers.

These seminars are part of a coordinated approach to supporting staff CPD. Our membership of IDOX Information Service contributes to this, as it allows our colleagues who undertake academic study as part of their professional development to access a range of resources to help them achieve their qualifications.

To sum up, our team should not simply navigate through the information jungle for material that we find interesting – everything we do should have a purpose in promoting excellence within our organisation; the information that we disseminate should always help drive innovation and improvement.

I would be happy to discuss any ideas with other like-minded organisations. Please drop me an email at tony.mclaughlin@wheatley-group.com

For more information about what we do visit www.wheatley-group.com


The Wheatley Group are members of the Idox Information Service. For the past 40 years, the Information Service has been the first port of call for information and knowledge on public and social policy and practice.

Our previous blogs on housing associations include:


How collecting evidence can help improve public policy: Scottish Enterprise’s approach to economic development evaluation

By Stephen Lochore

EO homeThe Knowledge Exchange has helped a range of public sector organisations to collate, analyse and disseminate their evaluation and research material. One example is the Evaluations Online portal, a publicly accessible collection of evaluation and research reports from Scottish Enterprise, one of Scotland’s two regional development agencies. We’ve recently made some changes to the portal, and though these were mainly to design and layout, it got me (as Project Manager) thinking about wider issues of accountability and evidence-based policy. Continue reading

Can cities exploit, conserve & promote their historic environment?

Liverpool Albert Dock

Liverpool is an example of a city which has seen tension between commercial development and its World Heritage Status

by Stephen Lochore

According to a recent talk on Sustainable Development in World Heritage Cities, urban heritage has not been adequately addressed by existing multinational agreements designed to guide approaches to sustainable development. Examples of such agreements include the outputs of the United Nations’ Earth Summit 2012 or 1992’s Local Agenda 21 and the subsequent ‘Aalborg’ Charter of European Sustainable Cities and Towns Towards Sustainability, which over 100 UK local authorities signed. Continue reading

Why local authorities should support community organisations delivering local services

3d Community puzzle

by Stephen Lochore

I recently posted about how local authorities can support their communities, and in particular local community groups, at a time when their ability to directly deliver local services is diminishing.  My post touched on the danger of assuming that local groups will be able to step-in to deliver services.  Research into issues such as community resilience, community development and co-production suggests a number of concerns about the role of voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) in delivering local public services. Continue reading

8 ways local authorities can support community empowerment in an age of austerity

community signby Stephen Lochore

Austerity measures implemented by the UK Government since 2010 have reduced funding for some public services and aspects of welfare.  Although local government has attempted to absorb real-term reductions in funding, for example by sharing corporate functions, the scale of the cuts is reducing direct delivery in some service areas.  Discretionary community-level support services have been disproportionately affected by austerity measures. Continue reading