This week, as part of our commitment to provide independent investment advice to children’s services, we launch the website Investing in Children.
It applies the Social Research Unit's widely acclaimed and increasingly applied Standards of Evidence. Using a US model, translated for use here in the UK, it calculates the costs and benefits of competing investment options, and gives a ‘best buy’ stamp of approval to those programmes, practices, policies and processes that have the best chance of improving children’s health and development.
As the economy continues to tighten, as resources available to children’s services agencies continue to reduce, financial data should become more important. Our shared ambition must be to improve child outcomes by spending less money. No easy task.
The data available from Investing in Children can help. It provides a prediction on the potential economic return of any intervention that has been rigorously evaluated. Our predictions are extremely cautious, and we publish data on the chances of the investment going wrong.
But they remain a prediction. To realise our shared ambition, we need two additional ingredients.
The first is excellent implementation. The best bets lose money when they are inexpertly applied. A large part of the Social Research Unit’s work these days is providing help to agencies that seek excellence in implementation, at scale.
The second additional ingredient is the dark art of ‘benefit realisation’. A programme might be predicted to produce economic benefits, for example by reducing child maltreatment (and therefore demand for child protection services). But public systems are dynamic: they adapt to reduced demand by seeking supply from other sources. The net result? More children protected from abuse, the same amount of child protection activity, and less than expected - if any - economic benefit.
One of the dark arts of benefit realisation is control of system dynamics. There are many others, but that is not for now.
Good cost-benefit data, like that provided by Investing in Children, can only be a good thing. But it is not a panacea. Its value comes when it is mixed with other approaches - some rooted in science and practice, like excellence in implementation, and some hardly grounded at all, like the emerging magic of benefit realisation.