Are we “putting the policy cart before the evidence horse”?

By Alistair McIntosh, HQN Chief Executive

That’s what the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) is asking about Sure Start. 

Why? New Labour got Sure Start going and piled in the cash. But it became a victim of austerity. Who was right? Should it have stayed, or should it have gone? No one knows as there’s not a lot of evidence about what it did or did not do either way. So, the IFS has stepped into the breach to try and make sense of it. 

What did they find? It turns out that Sure Start helped to cut trips to the hospital for kids by 18%. The drop was biggest for poorer children. That’s no small feat. It’s not at all clear how well Sure Start did on other things like obesity. The savings from averted hospitalisations got back about 6% of the costs of Sure Start. 

Taking a long, hard look at the evidence, the IFS now thinks there is a case for a better targeted version of Sure Start. Or, as it says, “focussing limited resources on poorer neighbourhoods rather than spreading them thinly”.

Why does this matter to us? As we speak, it’s time to pull together your financial statements for 2018/19. The RSH want you to report on the costs and benefits of all your activities as part and parcel of their VfM standard. So, can you justify what you do? 

Many associations now go well beyond the landlord role. We see all sorts of health and training projects. Are these working? How do you know?  Is it any clearer than the picture was on Sure Start? Are your policies running free of any evidence constraints? 

If so, when the tide turns and there is less money around you might end up shutting a project that does good things. Just like we did with Sure Start. And you could be criticised by the RSH for wasting money. 

So, how do we sort this out? Here are the questions I would ask of any new project (they sound easy but more often or not can be tricky to answer): 

Why are we doing this?
Are we clear on the outcomes we want to see?
What is it costing?
Is anyone else doing this? What can we learn?
Could we spend the money in a better way?
What benefits are the tenants getting?
What benefits is the business getting?

These questions might stop you from embarking on some sort of a vanity project. But when something is worth doing you need to keep gathering the right sort of evidence. One fine day you will have to defend it to the RSH and others. 

We threw the baby out with the bathwater on Sure Start. Don’t let this happen to you. 


How can HQN help?

-checking the accuracy of your VfM metrics before they go to the regulator

-suggesting peer groups for comparing your VfM metrics

-constructive challenges to prove the VfM of your resident welfare and training projects

-HQN help to produce a summary of academic research with the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence and the HSA – the April issue covered the role of housing associations in resident welfare and training for work and analysed the impact of collaboration on service delivery across councils 

For more information and to find out how HQN can help you, contact Anna Pattison on 01904 557197 or