What if a public service really offered you the chance to transform your life? For all the talk of incentives, few public services do this convincingly. Young people might be offered some vouchers to engage wtih a programme for a week, but rarely are they made a really significant promise in return for the years of effort and commitment required to get an education.
Pathways to Education is a Canadian charity that does just that. It works offers intensive family support, tutoring and mentoring to to young people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but also promises up to an additional $4,000 scholarship if they participate in post-secondary education. In areas of Toronto, their work has cut drop-out rates by 70%. To me, that must in large part be because they offer a carrot worth having to people who really change their lives. (Hat tip: Charlie Leadbeater)
If there was a theme of the huge hit Freakanomics from a few years ago, it was that we should work much harder to understand the real incentives acting on people, and that if we get them right, great things are possible. I think we tend to over-estimate what can be achieved with some iTunes vouchers in the short-term, but under-estimate what can be achieved by the prospect of a real prize in the long-term. Just as another of my favourite services makes a difference by offering people something they really want - a romantic partner - so Pathways to Education offers to make a radical difference to people's chances of getting a job.
In Innovation Unit's work, we are trying to apply some of this same thinking. In our working looking to transform drug rehabilitation, we are thinking hard about how the promise of a home in return for leading a drug-free life for an extended period may be able to motivate people and to enable them to make lasting changes in their lives. We believe that we can help more offenders to stay off drugs and out of prison by engaging deeply with the question of what it would take to really help them.