"I FEEL like Lyndon Johnson phoned me up and said 'Do you want to set up Headstart?'" For New Yorker Naomi Eisenstadt, appointed to run Britain's Sure Start programme for similarly disadvantaged young children, it was a remarkable and frightening opportunity. "I just can't believe my luck."
She was 16 when the American president launched his anti-poverty programme in 1966, her best friend's mother became a Headstart director, and Naomi was hooked.
She ran a combined nursery centre in California, and stayed in family support and early childhood development after she followed her husband's job to Britain in 1974. She worked at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Save the Children, and the Open University, and joined the board of the National Children's Bureau.
"It's a shame Johnson isn't remembered for his social programmes, instead of the Vietnam war," she says.
As we talk against the background of the Kosovan crisis, I wonder if something similar might be said of Tony Blair, for Sure Start is at the heart of an even more innovative social programme here.
It began with the Treasury's review of services for under eights, a cross-departmental exercise which found the significant gap was in spending on children under four. Poverty was the key issue, lying at the root of educational failure, delinquency and unemployment.
So Sure Start begins at the beginning. The multi-agency family support targeted at physical, intellectual, social and emotional development runs from birth to three. Attention will be focused on pockets of poverty and deprivation, urban or rural, but open to all families in the area.
As chief executive of the Family Service Units charity, Naomi Eisenstadt was spotted at the Treasury seminars by their instigator, Norman Glass. She took him to Birmingham to demonstrate how finely-tuned family services need to be to differentiate between the needs of Bangladeshi and white working-class communities.
She won the job in open competition. It wasn't just her CV that gave her the edge, but the mixture of passion, street cred and managerial skills that she will need to make the Government's "joined-up" social policies a reality. "You could spend money on community-led programmes without changing the way services work," she says, "but there are broader expectations of cultural change across all services for children under four, beyond Sure Start.
"It is one of the programmes that people are looking to in order to demonstrate that joined-up government works."
Many have tried that sort of combined approach, and failed, but "Naomi is not afraid to say what she thinks," observes a former colleague. Health, care and education people may find that out as the first 21 projects start in July, with a second batch of trail-blazers due to be announced soon. But cohesion and inspiration start at the top.
David Blunkett speaks in Cabinet for Sure Start, which lives in his department; health minister Tessa Jowell chairs the steering group, which includes ministers from seven departments; there are links to the Social Exclusion Unit, and to education minister Margaret Hodge's early-childhood empire.
Naomi believes they can co-ordinate seamless policy. "It's not that hard at field-level either, with the right people." Deep-seated assumptions must be dislodged in local authorities, the health service and voluntary sector, and her most effective lever is money.
Sure Start will spend pound;452 million in England over three years on 250 local programmes. Invitations to bid for this year's pound;83m went out in January to likely groups in 60 areas. Each community will be small, with 400-1,000 children under four.
Bids could be for pound;100,000 to pound;1m a year, and might be based on existing programmes, such as early excellence centres. Parents and community groups must be consulted. "That amount of money for real service delivery is unusual, and it's unusual for central government to do it in this very direct way," says Naomi.
"Changing the way we work is very difficult and we will have wasted the money if we rely on the tap for long. The culture change has to alter the way we do business at local level. That's what ministers want. The money is leverage and we have to use it."
Some of the cash will be invested in long-term evaluation, starting with indicators like birth-weight and post-natal depression (every Sure Start mother will be visited within three months of having her baby), followed by language capacity, truancy, youth crime and teenage pregnancies.
Until now the American High-Scope studies have provided the only long-term evidence on the effects of early intervention on children, so longitudinal research will be valuable, but they need to learn early on what's working, and what isn't. "We need some quick wins."
For schools, the test of how well health, social care and education tie up in a Sure Start package will lie in language and social behaviour. Will children arrive at school ready to learn, rather than lost?
"Children are born ready to learn," says Naomi firmly. "You have to work hard to stop that. Demanding behaviour is how children learn." They must work with parents, she insists, to demonstrate that natural learning behaviour has to be encouraged. Sitting silently in front of the television is not the way.
"Some struggles of life make that quite difficult. We mustn't forget what it's like for poor people." A realistic programme will aim to make daily life easier - by providing access to washing machines as well as learning programmes. Specialist services must be brought to the community.
"But we've had some very good proposals, which lightened the heart. We have a real opportunity now to make things happen."