Little heresies in public policy: ‘Troubled families’ or troubling policy?

I have been invited to do a talk on the Troubled Families Programme as part of the ‘Little Heresies in Public Policy’ seminar series, organised by Newcastle University Business School. The seminar series takes aim at some of the most taken-for-granted aspects of current public policies, such as payment-by-results funding mechanisms, the personalisation agenda, and attempts to measure well-being.

The title of the talk is ”Troubled Families’ or troubling policy?’, it’s on 7 April and it kicks off at 6:00pm. The blurb for the talk is below and more detail, including how to register (it’s free), can be found here

The Troubled Families Programme, launched in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, reputedly works with some of England’s most troublesome and anti-social families. Delivered by local authorities, the government claimed that the first phase of the programme had ‘turned around’ the lives of 99% of the 120,000 ‘troubled families’ identified at the outset of the programme and within the timescale set by David Cameron. Now in its second phase the programme is working with 400,000 more ‘troubled families’, using a ‘persistent, assertive and challenging’ model of ‘family intervention’.

Stephen will examine different aspects of the ‘troubled families’ story that should concern us, including:

  • its intellectual antecedents;
  • the misuse of research evidence throughout the programme;
  • the extent to which the families constitute ‘neighbours from hell’;
  • and the ability of ‘family intervention’ style practices to ‘turn around’ the lives of impoverished and disadvantaged families.


Frontline perspectives on the Troubled Families Programme

On Monday of this week, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies published the views of an anonymous social worker who has first hand experience of working on and around the Troubled Families Programme. The worker argued that pressure from the government, in the form of cuts to local services had ‘caused staff to act against their ethical and professional values’ and argued that ‘a programme which aims to help families with multiple disadvantages is actually subjecting them to coercion and harassment’. They also claimed that a large proportion of the successes claimed by the ‘new’ approach have been delivered by ‘mapping’ families progress with existing services.

Yesterday, I added my perspective, including some historical context which highlighted the role that frontline workers have in negotiating and adapting policy to make it ‘work’, but also the constraints they face in their attempts to use discretion in their daily work. I then highlighted some of the views of the practitioners I have interviewed as part of my PhD research which suggest that the social worker who offered up their views to the CCJS isn’t an isolated case.

Whilst these two short blog posts highlight some of the criticisms of the TFP that can be found at a local level, it’s worth noting that lots of practitioners, and indeed the families themselves, are very supportive of and positive about the TFP-style ‘family intervention’ approach, as can be seen from some of the newspaper and peer-reviewed articles below.

Critical views on ‘family intervention’ approaches from the perspectives of family workers and families themselves are thin on the ground. Most writing, including peer-reviewed articles, often highlight the positive experiences of families and practitioners who are involved with ‘family intervention’. Accepting these accounts at face value, however, risks leaving us with a ‘common-sense’ view of the world.  I’d prefer to argue that we shouldn’t be so quick to take these things for granted and that a ‘break with immediate experience is an essential pre-requisite for social-scientific inquiry’ (Thompson, in Bourdieu, 1991: 11).

Newspaper articles

Peer-reviewed articles

Boddy, J., Statham, J., Warwick, I., Hollingworth, K. and Spencer, G. (2015) What Kind of Trouble? Meeting the Health Needs of ‘Troubled Families’ through Intensive Family Support, Social Policy and Society, First View Article, DOI:

Bond-Taylor, S. (2015) Dimensions of Family Empowerment in Work with So-Called ‘Troubled’ Families, Social Policy and Society, 14 (3): 371-384

Morris, K. (2013) Troubled families: vulnerable families’ experiences of multiple service use, Child and Family Social Work, 18 (2): 198–206

Hayden, C. & Jenkins, C. (2014) The ‘Troubled Families’ Programme in England: ‘wicked problems’ and policy-based evidence, Policy Studies, 35 (6): 631-649.