Many fields oscillate between optimism and despair. Medicine, economics, education – all go through regular talk of new breakthrough ideas, which are often followed by disappointment as hoped for ‘magic bullets’ turn out to be not so magic after all.
Crime and youth justice policy has arguably seen the most extreme oscillations. It’s the area in which the phrase ‘nothing works’ was first coined – linked to a famous review by Robert Martinson on prisoner rehabilitation in the mid-70s, but rapidly expanded to take in many attempts to reduce offending. Despair!
But there have been periodic outbreaks of optimism – new ideas or interventions that have captured public and political attention as being the solution to tackling violence and offending. Perry Preschool is a famous example, suggesting that early childhood enrichment programs could radically change the trajectory and life chances of children. It went on to inspire many policy interventions.
Others, such as the infamous Scared Straight program – which aimed to educate children about the realities of prison – have had more chequered histories, as early claims and widespread take-up gave way to more rigorous and negative reassessments.
But hope is not to be underestimated. It can be a powerful motive for action. Why pursue any policy or practical interventions, supportive or punitive, if you think ‘nothing works’?
Having worked for a number of Prime Ministers, including leading on crime and justice for one of them, I’ve seen this cycle up close many times over. For example, in the late Blair era, I recall briefing Hilary Armstrong as she left the Cabinet room after being appointed by the PM to lead on Social Exclusion. We knew it was tough. As part of the briefing, I included a number of interventions that we thought might reduce exclusion from school, and by extension on youth offending.
These included: the Dundee project (an intensive family intervention); Nurse Family Partnership (the David Olds very early years intervention); and Teens & Toddlers (an intervention designed to reduce teenage pregnancies through raising aspirations and educational attainments).
As you may know (if you are reading this particular blog), the Dundee project went on to form the basis of the Troubled Families (now called Supporting Families) program, on which more than £1.5bn was spent following its adoption by the Coalition Government in 2010 and fortunately shown to be effective. The Nurse Family Partnership also had to wait until 2010 to be expanded and tested at scale. Interestingly, the early valuation appeared downbeat, though subsequently positive effects on attainment have been found.
Teens and Toddlers may be less well known. It was actually the focus of our first site visit with Hilary Armstrong. She loved it. We all did. It led to an eight-site RCT. But in this case the conclusion was that the programme was not effective.
A key question, then as now, is how can we expand the pipeline of promising interventions? And what can we do to bridge the leap between early promise, to robust trial – and if it seems to work – to national ‘roll-out’ and further enhancement?
That is where the Ending Youth Violence Lab fits in.
- We need it to help identify effective interventions from overseas that are worth testing in the UK, but that might need significant adaptation to have a chance of working in the UK.
- We need identify promising interventions that are already running in the UK, often supported by third sector organisations or Local Authorities, that merit further support and preparation to be tested at scale.
- We need to fund the development of new approaches which build on the latest scientific research, practitioner knowledge and lived experience of youth violence.
The Lab will do this. Acting as a centre of expertise it will collate knowledge on the most effective approaches identified so far and look back over ‘near misses’ to identify lessons learnt. It will apply this evidence to to build a pipeline of promising interventions ready for full scale impact evaluation.
I’ve often looked at the fabulous work of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab and thought every country desperately needs something similar. A place that can help identify possible ‘diamonds in the rough’, and work with originators and partners to nurture, polish and prepare the programs such that they would have the best possible chance of succeeding.
So welcome to the Ending Youth Violence Lab! And thank you to Stuart Roden and the Youth Endowment Fund for making it happen. We at the Behavioural Insights Team are proud to be hosting this new and much needed initiative. We have staff across the globe with expertise in the design and evaluation of social policy initiatives, and deep connections with governments, funders and research organisations, all of which will support the Lab to flourish.
If you are out there with a program or idea that you think shows that kind of promise – a twinkle in your eye of a future YEF trial and perhaps major government program – get in touch with Tom and the team. Maybe we can even get out of the dance of optimism and despair, to a more measured and sustained pipeline of social innovations. Most importantly of all, maybe the Lab can help a few young people, and those around them, to a better start in life.