The Troubled Families Programme: in, for and against the state?

I am giving what has been given the grand title of a ‘public lecture’ on the Troubled Families Programme in Sunderland on Wednesday. It’s essentially me talking for a round an hour or so (I think), supported by a few powerpoint slides. There will hopefully be plenty of time for questions and discussion afterwards.

If anyone is interested, the full details, including my abstract, are below:

UNIVERSITY OF SUNDERLAND

CENTRE FOR APPLIED SOCIAL SCIENCES (CASS)

Presents the First in a Series of Public Lectures

November 25th 3-5pm

Room 118, Priestman Building, City Campus, Sunderland

Stephen Crossley

University of Durham

The Troubled Families Programme: In, for, and against the state?

The Troubled Families Programme (TFP), established by the Coalition Government in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, set out to ‘turn around’ the lives of the 120,000 most ‘troubled families’ in England. When the rhetoric surrounding ‘troubled families’ is closely examined, a number of competing, and often contradictory, messages begin to emerge. This paper will examine the ways in which the Troubled Families Programme is positioned firstly by central government and secondly by local authorities and practitioners. Adopting a ‘street-level lens’, interviews with managers and workers in one local authority area are analysed in order to examine ‘the complexity of interactions concealed beneath the apparent monotony of bureaucratic routine’ (Bourdieu, 2005: 140). The paper concludes with reflections on the Janus-faced nature of the Troubled Families Programme and a discussion of its role in the crafting of a new ‘smart’ state.

If anyone would like a copy of a version of the paper, or a version of the presentation I’m giving, please get in touch at s.j.crossley@durham.ac.uk and I’ll gladly oblige.

 

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‘It was a good day’

There’s been quite a bit of coverage of the Troubled Families Programme today, some of it linked to a report published by the Centre for  Crime and Justice Studies, so this post is just bringing together a few bits and pieces in one place.

The Troubled Families Programme: the perfect social policy? – Briefing note for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

Is the success of the government’s troubled families scheme too good to be true? Society Guardian article

‘Fast policy’ in action: how the Troubled Families Programme expanded without any evaluation – LSE Politic & Policy blog

Successes of the Troubled Families programme ‘too good to be true’ says report – Community Care blog

Troubled Families programme ‘wastes millions of pounds’ Children & Young People Now article

Multi-agency programme ‘probably a waste of money’, claims researcher, Police Oracle article

The government response to the Guardian article was “All the evidence is rigorously audited and each claim made by a local authority represents measured improvements. The government is expanding this work so that more families can benefit from this innovative approach.” I’ll do a blog about this later this week, but for now, the best way to end is with a quote from one local authority worker (there are others) who commented on The Guardian website:

Crossley is right. I am responsible for collating information for our council’s payment by results claims and the phase 1 rules did not require us to work with the families we were claiming. I found this troubling and had many conversations with counterparts in other councils, but went along with it. The phase 2 rules (The Financial Framework for the Expanded Troubled Families Programme dated March 2015) impose no ‘worked with’ requirement. Everything changed in August 2015 when we were told (without consultation or discussion) of new conditions. The claim I was preparing went from about 200 households to six.

The wider question is whether this is a sensible use of public money: from where I stand it is. The teams actually delivering the service are able to be effective for a simple reason: focus. In other words they have small case loads and can stick with families for long enough to be effective, unlike (say) social workers who have five or ten times the case load. Not all interventions work but a lot do – as we would have expected because this way of working was developed by Action for Children 20 years ago and we have solid data on it. I sometimes spend time with our family intervention teams – we have some great people – as it’s good to hear their stories. Dealing with the team in London is another matter, often clouded by their belief in the Data Fairy. The DF is incredibly useful but for a tiny detail: she doesn’t exist.

‘Eligibility thresholds’ for local authorities in Phase 2 of the Troubled Families Programme

It is perhaps a measure of the disconnect between those responsible for the development of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) and the daily lives of the families it purports to help, that the government expected local authorities to ‘turn around’ 100% of their allocated ‘troubled families’ within the timescale laid down by the Prime Minister at the start of the programme. Failure to do so, local authorities were told, with a year remaining of Phase 1 of the programme, would result in them not ‘being eligible’ for the expanded Phase 2 of the programme.

None of the official DCLG documents relating to either Phase 1 or Phase 2 of the TFP mention anything about the need for local authorities to meet the targets set out for them by government. Another way of putting it is that there is nothing that has been made public about the government ‘encouraging’ local authorities to achieve 100% ‘turn around’ figures.

In August 2014, nearly three years after the launch of the programme and just 9 months before the end of Phase 1, local authorities were informed, via a letter from Louise Casey, that, in order to be eligible for the national roll out of the TFP, the Troubled Families Team (TFT)  in DCLG ‘will need sufficient assurance that areas are likely to hit their existing commitments to turn around all of their current allocation of troubled families by May 2015′ (original emphasis). She went on to write that the this target was not achieved ‘then we do hope that there will be an opportunity for you to join the expanded programme at a later point but, at this stage, I am unable to reassure you that this will be the case’.

Then, in November 2014, Joe Tuke, the Director of the TFT wrote again to local authority Chief Execs  and told them:

‘I’m writing to you, however, to urge that you maintain your support for this work because I remain worried that your council may not meet the levels of performance required in the current Troubled Families programme that will allow it to participate in the expanded Troubled Families programme when it is rolled out nationally from April 2015′ (my emphasis).

Tuke then goes on to lay any blame for the alleged poor or unsatisfactory performance at the door of the local officers by stating ‘I’m sure you’ll be aware of the considerable efforts we’ve made to support your team’s efforts on this programme, as we have done with all other areas, both individually and alongside other areas’.

So, shortly before the end of Phase 1 of the TFP, local authorities were told they wouldn’t be eligible to take part in Phase 2 of the TFP if they didn’t ‘play ball’ and make the PM look great. None of this was included in official guidance documents, either at the start of the TFP in 2011 or at any time since. It took an FOI request to obtain the information. The DCLG response to my request can be found here, in full.

The Guardian today reported that around 8000 of the 117,000 ‘turned around’ families never received any kind of intervention from the TFP. They somehow managed to turn themselves around and found their way into the stats for the TFP through data matching exercises carried out by local authorities. This practice involves local authorities scouring historical data to find families that might once, within the last 12 months have met the criteria for being a ‘troubled family’ and checking their current ‘data’ to see if they still met the criteria. If they don’t, if something has changed within the family which means, in the government’s eyes at least, that they are no longer ‘troubled’, the local authority can claim ‘success’ for them. This practice is fairly widespread with at least 40 local authorities admitting that some of their families were ‘turned around’ in this way. It should also be noted that the design of the Payment by Results (PbR) process for the TFP allows this practice. Local authorities were not doing anything the guidance for the programme said they shouldn’t. My guess is that the government knew about this practice. I was made aware of it in April 2014 and have heard it mentioned many times since. DCLG have also introduced measures to prevent this practice occurring in Phase 2. But they probably turned a blind eye to it  in Phase 1 because it helped them to achieve the targets and timescale set out by the PM. Does anyone still believe the near perfect success story of the TFP?