“In a hurry”: Fast policy and ‘troubled families’

In today’s budget, it was announced that the Troubled Families Programme would be ‘accelerated’ and ‘expanding early to start working with up to 40,000 additional families in 2014-15’. The Guardian reported that this was a ’ministerial vote of confidence for the scheme’ although I would argue that this is a fairly uncritical reading of the situation.

Eric Pickles has claimed on a couple of occasions that the government is ‘in a hurry’ and the announcement today – along with other elements of the ‘troubled families’ approach – reminds me of the ‘fast policy’ approach that Jamie Peck has written of. In an article from 2002 that focuses primarily on workfare policies, Peck talks about the ‘confident rhetoric of fast-policy solutions and the conviction-speak of neoliberal politicians’ (p348). This fits with the frequent claims regarding the ‘success’ and ‘phenomenal progress’ of the Troubled Families Programme and the decision to ‘massively expand the programme to 400,000 ‘high risk families, despite no evaluation findings or in-depth analysis having been carried out. Peck argues that

translocal fast-policy transfers are being established as one of the principal means of policy development. In workfare discourse, much is made of localized learning, but ironically, what this term usually means in practice is the importation of off-the-shelf program techniques from other locations (p344 my emphasis)

This should remind us that the ‘Family Intervention Project’ (FIP) model has been touted around as the way to deal with ‘troubled families’, with all local authorities expected to use the model, despite rather flaky evidence to support the claim that ‘it works’. Peck also suggests that

the importation of off-the-shelf policy fixes becomes a way of shortening the development phase of new programs, while a new emphasis on systemic innovation and almost perpetual reform ensures that the turnover time of policy cycles is accelerated. (p349)

This, again, provides an insight into how and why the TFP got up and running so quickly and Louise Casey has regularly suggested that the TFP is about ‘radical reform’ of public services as much as it is about the alleged 120,000 families. Perhaps the most relevant quote from Peck’s article, however, is the one below:

Fast-policy regimes help secure a clumsy form of crisis displacement through space and across scales as macrolevel problems of underemployment and poverty are rescripted as matters of local institutional determination, if not personal failure, while local policy failures are managed through a combination of interlocal competition, technocratic translation, and serial emulation (p350 my emphases)

Louise Casey’s report ‘Listening to Troubled Families’ does not include the words ‘poverty’ or unemployment’ once. The approach to addressing the problems that these families face is one that works ‘from inside out rather than outside in’ (p26 of the DCLG report ‘Working with Troubled Families’). The Guardian argued that ‘successful local councils will be entitled to bid’ for extra money relating to the acceleration of the programme, whilst one local authority issued a press release celebrating the fact that they had ‘smashed’ the ‘national target’ for ‘troubled families’ and, as a result, had ‘been awarded £475,500 in ‘success money’.

The reason for my scepticism about this ‘acceleration’ being a reward for success or a vote of confidence hinges on the magic number of 120,000 families. Ruth Levitas recently argued that the original ‘estimate’ of 120,000 families is now being ‘treated as a target’ and I wrote recently about the ‘numbers game’ in the TFP, where I argued that the primary concern with the programme appeared to be achieving the Prime Ministers ‘clear ambition’ of ‘turning round’ the lives of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ within the lifetime of this Parliament.

One relatively easy way for the government to ensure it fulfill the Prime Minister’s ambition might be to increase the number of families the ‘best performing’ local authorities work with – and increase the funding available to them to do it. Of course, I’ll gladly accept that I’ve made a gross misjudgment if the Prime Minister revises his ambition upwards in light of today’s announcement. But I can’t see that happening at the moment, because, he has so much at stake with the original 120,000 figure and, as John Macnicol has written:

proponents of the underclass concept seem only half aware of its conceptual flaws and completely ignorant of its long and undistinguished pedigree. Indeed it is they who have displayed the strongest present-time orientation, with little ability to defer gratification until the past debate has been examined. (p 315 my emphasis)

***It will also be interesting to see what the criteria for the new 40,000 families will be – whether it will remain the same as the 120,000 families or whether new criteria will be developed/added. Louise Casey stated recently that domestic violence ‘will become a focus of the extended scheme’.***