‘Double Trouble’: the ‘dual problematization’ in the ‘troubled families narrative

A few weeks ago I gave a paper at the Social Policy Association conference in Sheffield. The slides from the presentation can be accessed by clicking on the image below.

SPA slides

In the paper I try to argue that, as well as the problematization of the families themselves in the ‘troubled families’ discourse, the organisations that have traditionally provided services to these families are also problematized. The paper draws on work by Evelyn Brodkin and Deborah Stone who argue that if ‘problematic’ individuals or the conditions in which they live are the main target of contemporary public policies, a secondary target is the ‘underperforming’ or ‘inefficient’ public services that are working with them. Stone suggests that this is akin to a ‘culprit’ and ‘accomplice’ situation. This problematization is, I think ,easy to miss because there is so much in the depiction of the families and the development of the programme itself that warrants analysis and critique.

However, the ‘trouble families’ narrative – and indeed that of ‘family intervention projects’ more widely is full of examples of the problematization of current and historical social and family services to disadvantaged communities. FIPs have always been portrayed as a response to the failing of traditional services – in New Labour’s RESPECT agenda when they were rolled out nationally, they were tasked not just with ‘gripping the families’ but ‘gripping the services’ that worked with the families as well.

Of course, this narrative of ‘broken services’ helps to pave the way for the kind of  ‘public service transformation’ which Louise Casey has spoken of in her desire to ‘change the mainstream’. The Troubled Families Programme has never been about a singular programme aimed at ‘turning round’ the lives of a distinct group of families deemed to be troublesome. It is, fairly obviously now, about fundamentally changing the way that the state engages with a much wider group families who it identifies as being ‘in need’ of intervention and/or ‘deviant’ in some way. Cohen’s metaphor of the ‘widening of the net’ and Donzelot’s image of a nest of Russian dolls, with an initial model accompanied by a series on enveloping ones, are, I think, particularly useful concepts in thinking about the future development of the ‘troubled families’ approach.

 

‘Safe spaces’, ‘lurid headlines’ and ‘high-risk families’

Last year, the ‘massive expansion’ of the troubled families programme was announced to include 400,00 high-risk families. Regular readers of the blog may remember that I issued an FOI request asking for information on the criteria and methodology used for identifying the new group of families. I blogged about the response I got here, arguing that it was ‘decision based evidence making’ and then blogged about the response to the internal appeal here suggesting we were seeing ‘policymaking by estimate’. In January, I complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about the way that the request had been handled and asked them to look into it. In July, I received the decision of the ICO, which was to uphold the DCLG decision not to disclose either the criteria or methodology for identifying 400,000 ‘high-risk families’. The decision notice can be accessed on the ICO website here, but if you want to read on, you’ll find out why I’ve decided to appeal this decision as well.

In the decision notice, DCLG argue that there is a ‘need for safe space in relation to provisional analyses and eligibility criteria, pending Ministerial sign-off’ (Para 21, p4) and that there is a ‘need to prevent adverse affect to the policy in question’ as the issues in question would ‘attract a high degree of public and media attention’ (Para 22, p5). DCLG argue that this ‘would be harmful as it would give the public and local authorities … a potentially inaccurate and misleading impression about the ultimate, finalised design of the Programme’ (Para 23, p5). The decision notice goes on to say that this could result in local authorities and their partners  ‘preparing and investing in an expected Programme design’ which could result in ‘the wasting of public funds’ (Para 24, p5).

In considering this information, the ICO note, referring to a previous ICO case, that ‘Ministers and officials are entitled to time and space, in some instances considerable time and space, to hammer out policy by exploring safe and radical options alike, without the threat of lurid headlines depicting that which has been merely broached as agreed policy’ (Para 27, p6).

The Commissioner accepts the need to maintain the safe space as DCLG ‘has argued that the early disclosure of an incomplete range of representations would be likely to give a misleading and inaccurate picture of how the Programme will eventually look’ (Para 29, p6). The notice goes on to state that ‘the severity of the potential effects which disclosure could cause in this case heightens the need for integrity of the safe space identified by DCLG being maintained’ (Para 31, p7).

I can understand the logic behind this argument, although I don’t necessarily agree with it. My main complaint with it, however, is that the government regularly flout this advice and have, on numerous occasions, disclosed information to local authorities, parliament and the media which could potentially threaten the ‘safe space’ which they regard as so important. This, I think , totally undermines their argument in using it as a reason for not disclosing the information I requested.

Below are some links where ministers of civil servants have disclosed information which could give local authorities a ‘potentially inaccurate and misleading impression’ of the programme’s expansion (all emphases added):

Danny Alexander 24.06.2013

“Extending this intensive help to 400,000 more families will enable us to tackle problems such as truancy, anti-social behaviour and crime.”

Louise Casey 24.06.2013

“It is great news that the momentum we have built up on the Troubled Families programme can continue by extending the approach to a wider group of families who, for example, are struggling with health problems or parenting, where their children are not in school or are at risk of being taken into care.”

Eric Pickles 24.06.2013

“I think we can now move to another 400 who are not as acute as the 120, but who nevertheless still have problems and the same criteria: kids into schools, people on the road to work, and a reduction in antisocial behaviour” (p21)

Louise Casey 05.03.2014

“Last summer, the government announced an expansion to our troubled families programme, seeking to extend help to a further 400,000 families from next year. We know that domestic violence will be an issue in many of these families and therefore it will become a focus of the extended scheme.”

In relation to the last comment, Louise Casey also gave an interview to The Sun newspaper which resulted in the article below, online here. One must therefore assume that this coverage didn’t affect the main argument about ‘about the need for a “safe space” to formulate policy, debate “live” issues”, and reach decisions without being hindered by external comment and/or media involvement’ (Para 26, p6) and is not the kind of ‘lurid headline’ the ICO was concerned about.

'KICK OUT THE WIFEBEATERS'

Most intriguingly, in my opinion, however, are three DCLG presentations relating to the TFP which I came across via google searches. These three presentations, available here, here and here were given to local authorities or public seminars in March, April and May by senior members of the Troubled Families Team at DCLG. Each one of them contains detailed information about the expanded programme, with two of them using almost identical language to highlight that it would include families:

  • affected by domestic violence
  • with vulnerable children, and
  • with a range of mental and physical health problems,
  • high risk of worklessness; and
  • involved in crime from generation to generation

These presentations were all given in the months before DCLG responded to the ICO request for information in relation to my complaint. I know this because the ICO notified me early in June to tell me that DCLG had requested more time to respond to their request. So, we appear to have a ridiculous situation where a government department is disclosing partial and incomplete information about an ‘important and high-profile’ programme on a fairly regular basis, whilst also stating to the UK’s independent authority on information rights that to do so ‘would be harmful’ and could result ‘in the wasting of public funds’.

One might conclude that either the DCLG is being disingenuous in its response to the ICO or it genuinely doesn’t know what it’s doing, or, more specifically what it’s officials are talking about. It’s difficult to know which one to plump for. One thing appears fairly certain, though. The people involved do not want to submit themselves to any kind of scrutiny or external examination. They are more than happy to tour the country providing incomplete and partial information to local authorities and partners and tasty titbits to tabloid newspapers when it suits their purposes. But they don’t like it, as this and previous FOI requests have proven, when someone with a slightly critical approach asks for background information on or the rationale for policy developments and public statements. One can only wonder why that may be…..

 

*An official DCLG publication has also included some ‘partial, incomplete’ information on the new programme, but this was published after I received the ICO response.

DCLG document ‘Understanding Troubled Families’ published 22.07.2014

“The prevalence of domestic violence experienced by families has frequently been cited by troubled families co-ordinators as a major concern, one now borne out by this data, which will become a focus of the expanded troubled families programme” (p21)

**For a good summary of previous FOI requests in relation to the TFP, see this short article by Paul Spicker ‘What is an ‘official statistic’?’