Troubled Families: #winning

Earlier this week, an article on the Mail Online suggested that, on Thursday of this week, Eric Pickles would announce that the government ‘are on track to turn around 120,000 troubled families’. Now, for once, I’m tempted to believe something in the Mail. So, if the Mail is right and there is to be an announcement tomorrow on the ‘success’ of the programme, here’s some background info which might help to frame it.

In his ‘fightback after the riots’ speech, David Cameron stated that

‘I will make sure that we clear away the red tape and the bureaucratic wrangling, and put rocket boosters under this programme (to help ‘troubled families’)…

…with a clear ambition that within the lifetime of this Parliament we will turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country’

In launching the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) as we now know it a couple of months later, Cameron stated that

‘my mission in politics – the thing I am really passionate about – is fixing the responsibility deficit’


‘We are committing £448 million to turning around the lives of 120,000 troubled families by the end of this Parliament.’

With such a personal commitment from the Prime Minister no-one should have been in any doubt that the TFP was always going to be a ‘success’. There are also other developments and announcements which highlight how important the ‘success’ of the TFP is to the government. The ‘massive expansion’ of the programme to include 400,000 newly identified ‘high-risk families’ was announced last June before any evaluation had reported on the success of otherwise of the programme and when the most recent publicly available information at the time showed that just 1675 families (or less than 1.5% of the total) had been ‘turned round’. The programme also received extra funding during the Budget, enabling ‘high performing’ councils to work with an extra 40,000 families in the coming financial year. Eric Pickles has previously suggested that progress with the TFP has been ‘phenomenal’.

In raising the profile of ‘troubled families’ and making them a visible social problem, Cameron (and, by extension, the government) invested a lot of personal and political capital in the programme. It was never going to fail, be allowed to fail or, more specifically, be seen to fail. As Spector & Kitsuse noted in their influential book Constructing Social Problems:

‘the belief that something could be done about a condition is a prerequisite to its becoming a social problem. People do not define as problems those conditions they feel are immutable, inherent in human nature or the will of God … Every experience of displeasure and dissatisfaction has its origins in the availability, if not promise, of remedies, cures, reforms and solutions for such troubles’. (1977: 84)

This leaves the small problem of actually demonstrating that the programme has been a success in ‘turning round’ the lives of the families. Leaving aside the arbitrary, short-term, narrow behavioural focus on what the government constitutes ‘turning round’ a family (there, technically speaking, is no need to address health issues, living standards, even Domestic Violence if it’s an issue – these problems don’t ‘count’) the numbers returned by local authorities are an interesting case. As Ruth Levitas points out in her recent Troubled Families in a Spin, ‘Local variation in the criteria used to identify troubled families generates statistics that are not comparable across the board’. She goes on to note that the DCLG state that the numbers provided by local authorities do not constitute ‘official statistics’ and:

Since the figures were collated from returns from the 152 upper tier local authorities, so they were not ‘produced’ by the DCLG, even if the Department was responsible for placing them in the public domain and trumpeting them as evidence for the TFP’s success. More importantly, the 2007 Act also set up the statistics watchdog, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), which among other things has ‘a duty to monitor, and report publicly, on areas of concern about the quality, good practice, and comprehensiveness of all official statistics across Government and its arms-length bodies’. Although local authorities might be considered to be ‘arms-length bodies’, the real meaning of denying that these are official statistics is that they have not been assessed by and are not subject to the scrutiny of UKSA: the DCLG does not want to be held to account either for the quality of the data or its political (mis)use.

As such, it is impossible to verify the numbers that local authorities submit. Not only do the local filter criteria differ between authorities, but internal audit processes, the only scrutiny process that all of these figures are subject to, also differ markedly between authorities. Official guidance for local authorities in the Financial Framework for the TFP states that central government oversight of the numbers will be confined to ‘a small number of ‘spot’ checks:

We are asking for self-declarations of these results by your local authority and the Troubled Families team will issue results payments on the basis of these declarations. This should be approved within your own Internal Audit arrangements and under the authority of the Chief Executive. In addition, Department for Communities and Local Government will carry out a small number of ‘spot checks’ in a sample of areas (p11)

Louise Casey has also spoken about her ‘worry list’ of local authorities who are not making the progress required by the programme and who, as a consequence, receive extra attention from her, maybe even a visit. It would appear then, that as long as authorities are seen to be making good ‘progress’, they may be rewarded with extra funding, but those who do not show sufficient progress receive extra scrutiny… As I said at the start, the programme was never going to be portrayed as anything other than a ‘success’ from the moment it was launched.

My leap of faith in believing the Mail may, of course, come back to haunt me and I may have got this very wrong. Eric Pickles may hold his hands up on Thursday and say ‘You know what, we tried and we didn’t quite get there. We aren’t going to make good on the Prime Ministers personal ambition in respect of these families and, in the run up to the General Election, we need to be clear with the public about or shortcomings.’ But I wouldn’t put money on it.


Spector, M. & Kitsuse, J. (1977) Constructing Social Problems, New York: Aldine de Gruyter


Social workers as ‘bounty hunters’?

lee majors

Go with me on this one….

A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in a workshop on Troubled Families at the SWAN conference held in Durham. The presentation that I used to generate discussions about the idea of ‘troubled families’ looked at the historical constructions of the ‘underclass’ thesis but, given the audience, it also looked at the implications for policy and practice. I shared an idea that I have been thinking about for a while and which I want to elaborate on a little bit more here – the idea that social or, as they’re increasingly referred to, ‘family’ workers, as imagined by the ‘troubled families’ narrative, are akin to and could conceivably operate as state sanctioned ‘bounty hunters’ in the not too distant future. This will probably be a bit messy and might appear to be a slightly flippant way of looking at this issue, but I think there’s enough to go on and the metaphor can be seen as an example of what Loic Wacquant has called the ‘remasculinization of the state’ (p201). So here goes…

In the current Troubled Families Programme, local authorities and their partners are required to go looking for troubled families – we know that the indicative number of ‘troubled families’ provided by DCLG that authorities should be working with is far larger in most cases than the number of families in each area that meet all three national criteria. So local authorities are required to develop their own criteria and then go looking for families that meet these criteria. There is, effectively, a hunt for troubled families going on, with a looming deadline focusing the minds of workers as they trawl through data trying to make a match or ‘find a lead’.

midnight run

Once a ‘troubled family’ is ‘identified’ a single worker is supposed to be allocated to that family. Remember the mantra ‘One family. One plan.One worker’. An attachment fee is then paid to the local authority – with the implication being that the worker will stick to the family and won’t, figuratively speaking of course, leave their side. This chimes with the ‘persistent’, ‘challenging’, ‘assertive’ approach that is required of workers. The Payment By Results mechanism thus effectively operates as a bonus for ‘turning round’ a family – very similar to the bounty paid when a ‘wanted’ man (sic) is ‘brought in’ by a bounty hunter.

If, as Louise Casey argues that “All of what we do turns on something very simple: the relationship between the worker and the family” then the importance of institutional structures and partnerships fades into the background. If one worker, with brilliant personal skills can bring about change in the most troubled and chaotic families in our society, who needs a complex bureaucratic institutional framework to support their work? Just as the source of the ‘problem’ is individualised or, at its most expansive level, familialised, with wider potential determinants being roundly ignored, so the solution is presented as being within the gift of an exceptional individual rather than changes to structural and societal factors.

So, whilst the PBR process currently goes through local authorities and the money is paid to the institution, it is not inconceivable, given recent developments, that family workers could be paid directly depending on the results that they achieve. The Department for Education recently issued a consultation on the outsourcing of children’s services – potentially removing local authorities from the equation (a similar thing also appears to be on the cards for probation officers) and the same government department has (re)introduced performance related pay for teachers – so a precedent has been set for payment by results (or performance) to street-level employees of the state and there is also a direction of travel which will see the delivery of children’s services ‘opened up’ to market forces and increased competition, potentially leading to a ‘need’ for a ‘more flexible workforce’. Casey has also previously stated that PBR ‘makes the transaction between ourselves and what we are trying to do with the family clear’ with a real ‘simplicity’ (emphasis added). What would make the transaction clearer and simpler and, dare I say it, ‘leaner’ and more efficient, is to contract directly with an individual or a private organisation.  Stan Cohen has also argued that in Visions of Social Control that, in instances similar to the one being discussed, state power can be maintained and even extended even whilst the symbolic and simulated withdrawal of the state is taking place (p109). This also links to Wacquants arguments around a recrafting of the state under neoliberalism, as opposed to a shrinking of it.

If this direction is continued, there would be nothing to stop ‘family workers’ going independent (in fact it might be necessary in some areas) and potentially working for whichever agency was willing to pay them to work with the ‘most troublesome’ families. The ‘best’ workers (identified as those with the highest ‘success’ rate in ‘turning round’ a family’) would be able to charge the highest fees. The removal of a state infrastructure also works to prevent the issue of critical or subversive practice what Lemert has called ‘industrial deviance’ – the situation where employees work ‘in and against the state’. It also reflects recent initiatives which have sought to re-brand social work as a cool, hip, masculine career choice for ‘elite’ individuals. Note the gritty, urban images (hoodies, sharp haircuts, concrete urban settings) used to seduce Russell Group students into a life on the ‘Frontline’. No images highlighting administrative or assessment related procedures or old, temperamental computer equipment were used…..

Of course, it would be churlish to suggest that the ‘social’ has no role to play in transforming families lives in this brave new world. As this thought provoking blog post shows, agents of the state who wanted to work as part of a team could set up their own social enterprise, where they could operate as, well, ‘soldiers of (mis)fortune’:

If you have a problem (family), if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the SW-Team…..


I did say it might get messy…. I may well be barking up the wrong tree here or barking up a very old tree or, to really push it, barking where there just aren’t any trees at all. But, I’d be interested to hear people’s views and it does reflect age old concerns about the balance between the ‘care or control’ requirements/expectations of social workers. I also hope(genuinely) that what some may perceive as flippancy in this post might encourage others to consider viewing things slightly differently or reassure those who already do…..