‘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?

 

 

The ‘troubled families’ (non) announcements

We’ve always known that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money … but now we’ve come up with the actual figures. Last year the state spent an estimated £9 billion on just 120,000 families … that is around £75,000 per family.

(David Cameron, Troubled Families Programme launch speech, 15 December 2011)

The publication of a DCLG report and the announcement last week that the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) had seen ‘More than 105,000 troubled families turned around saving taxpayers an estimated £1.2 billionhas been subjected to a bit of scrutiny over the past few days. Jonathan Portes has posted a pretty comprehensive blog here, the Mirror have covered the announcement in an online piece and I’ve done a couple of short posts here and here. But there are a few things which weren’t announced last week or which were not included in the report which also deserve a little bit of scrutiny. So here goes.

Firstly, the £1.2 billion ‘savings’ figure never features in the DCLG report The Benefits of the Troubled Families Programme to the Taxpayer (hereafter called the Benefits report),or the accompanying Methodology report. In fact, the Methodology report states very clearly on p4 that ‘care should be taken when directly comparing results between local authorities’ and ‘the results reported are not results from the national programme as a whole’. If the advice to take care  with the figures had been taken, the figure of £1.2 billion ‘savings’ surely wouldn’t have been featured so heavily in the press release and there must be a very good reason it didn’t feature in either official publication. Two other figures which are mentioned early in the press release don’t feature in either publication. The ‘average gross cost saving to the taxpayer per ‘troubled family’ is identified as £12,000 in the press release but in the report it is stated as £11,200. The press release also states that the average cost of intervention is £5,493 per family, but this figure doesn’t appear anywhere in the report either, which puts the figure at £5,214 (p4). In the DCLG TFP Financial Framework document published in 2012, it is estimated that the cost of intervention was expected to be around £10,000 (p7). This discrepancy or ‘saving’ was not highlighted last week.

When the number of families ‘turned around’ is reported so precisely, it appears strange that less ‘care’ is taken with the reporting of the financial elements of the programme. It should also be noted that the £1.2 billion figure is a gross saving – it doesn’t take into account the total cost of the interventions, which, if we take the figure in the official publication rather than the press release, comes to around £550 million. So, taking a leap of unjustified faith with these figures, the best estimate of the net savings at the current time, without any counterfactual, and assuming that every positive change that took place within ‘troubled families’ lives was directly attributable to the work of the TFP, is around £650 million.

When David Cameron launched the TFP in 2011 he said the government had ‘come up with the actual figures’ for how much ‘troubled families’ cost. He said it was £9 billion – around £75,000 per family. Neither of these figures are mentioned in the Benefits report of the accompanying Methodology report. In early 2013, DCLG published two reports – The Fiscal Case for Working with Troubled Families: Analysis and Evidence on the Costs of Troubled Families to Government (which broke down the £9 billion figure into different policy areas) and The Cost of Troubled Families (which includes case studies of local authority estimates of the cost of their ‘troubled families’). Neither of these two documents are mentioned or referenced in the most recent reports, nor is anyone directed to them via any of the webpages related to last week’s announcements and publications.

The Benefits report suggests that, across the seven local authority areas used for the analysis, the average cost of the ‘troubled families’ they worked with (in the 12 months prior to intervention) was just £26,200 (p4). So the new ‘actual’ figure is around a third of the first ‘actual’ figure of £75,000 that the Prime Minister gave when he launched the TFP.

Another surprising omission form the information provided in the recent reports is the fact that two of the seven ‘exemplar’ local authorities who provided data for the Benefits report also provided costings for the Costs of Troubled Families report released in January 2013.

In Manchester, back in 2013, the city council estimated that they spent, on average around £74,000 per year on their ‘troubled families’ (p32) and predicted around £32,600 of savings from the TFP (p5). The figures released last week suggested that in the three years of the programme, the cost of ‘troubled families’ in Manchester in the 12 months prior to TFP intervention had been £58,238 in year 1, £37,075 in year 2 and £27, 793 in year 3. The average saving had been £6,240 in year 1, £7,632 in year 2 and £9,530 in year three (Annex A of the Benefits report). I’d argue these are quite substantial differences with neither the cost being anywhere near as high as anticipated (in year 2 it’s around half the expected cost and in year 3, just over a third) and the savings also, understandably, being severely lower than predicted.

In 2013, Wandsworth predicted savings of around £29,000 (p5) out of an expected cost of ‘troubled families’ of £32,000 (p27). The figures released last week suggested that ‘troubled families’ in Wandsorth cost on average only £17,895 in the 12 months prior to TFP intervention and the estimated savings were only £6,528 per ‘troubled family’ turned around (Annex A of the Benefits report).

But none of this is mentioned in any of the information released by DCLG last week, when it is surely highly relevant to understanding how the programme is progressing, or not progressing, in terms of its expected savings.

These are, effectively non-announcements – pieces of information which one could argue should have been published, discussed and explained or laid out for deliberation and scrutiny, if necessary. And it would have been very easy to do this, given that the independent evaluation has not reported any substantial findings yet and if the government hadn’t been so intent on telling everyone how perfect this programme is. Anyone would think the Prime Minister had made some kind of personal commitment to ‘turn around’ the lives of these families before the imminent election, saving bucket loads of ‘taxpayer’s money’ and transforming public service delivery at the same time…..

 

 

The Troubled Families Programme: the perfect social policy

Coverage of the recent announcement regarding the ‘success’ of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) in turning round over 105,000 families appears to have missed a very interesting finding from the release of the local authority figures. The government press release accompanying the news states that

There are 117,910 families targeted under the government’s Troubled Families programme. For rounding purposes, however, the target is usually referred to as 120,000

The TFP has apparently achieved a 100% success rate in local authorities identifying exactly the same amount of troubled families in their area as the indicative number provided by the government – the total number of families identified and worked with by local authorities comes to 117,910. Every single local authority has identified every single ‘troubled family’ in its area and every single local authority has begun working with them. The practice on the ground, therefore, represents a perfect alignment with the information provided by politicians and civil servants in Whitehall. This is despite the data used to identify the number of ‘troubled families’ being 6 years out of date and compiled for completely different purposes and identifying potentially very different families.

The figures also highlight that local authorities have performed better than the DCLG expected they would. On page 2 of the Financial Framework guidance for the TFP, the following statement can be found:

You may not succeed in turning around every family that you work with, and therefore it is likely you will need to work with more families than your indicative numbers.

Not one local authority has needed to work with more than their indicative number in order to ‘turn around’ all of their families. In fact, many local authorities can demonstrate a 100% success rate not just in identifying and working with ‘troubled families’ but in turning them around. Manchester, for example have identified, worked with and turned around a staggering 2385 ‘troubled families’. Not one has ‘slipped through the net’ or refused to engage with the programme. Leeds and Liverpool have a perfect success rate in each ‘turning around’ over 2000 ‘troubled families. By my reckoning, over 50 other local authorities across the country have been similarly ‘perfect’ in their TF work. Not one single case amongst those 50 odd councils where more ‘troubled families’ were identified or where a ‘troubled family’ has failed to have been turned around. It is also staggering that work with some of the most disadvantaged families who have allegedly been immune to all previous policy interventions and whose ‘troubles’ have existed ‘for generations’ has been so successful at a time of wide-ranging and deep cuts to local authorities and others public services. But, we must believe the government on this. For whilst the figures do not constitute ‘official statistics’, the government surely wouldn’t have published them if they knew them to be false or misleading….

So there we have it. The Troubled Families Programme. The perfect social policy.

No method in the ‘troubled families’ madness

DCLG published a couple of documents yesterday relating to the alleged ‘savings’ accrued to ‘the taxpayer’ from the Troubled Families Programme. I’m going to try and do a couple of blogs on different aspects of these publications and the ‘news’ contained within them, and this first one is going to look at the methodology behind the reports.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the publication of a methodology report represents something of a symbolic step forward, considering the contempt that has often been shown to methodology in other aspects of the programme, not least the identification of the 120,000 families in the first case. But that’s kind of where the good news ends.

So, firstly, the report The Benefits of the Troubled Families Programme to the Taxpayer and accompanying press release, which highlighted the estimated £1.2 billion saving from the Troubled Families Programme (TFP), were based on data collected from 7 of the 150 plus local authorities involved in the programme. The methodology document states that ‘the results reported are not from the national programme as a whole’ (p4) but this is not made clear in the press release which accompanied the report. We are also told that, of these seven, ‘five local authorities used a sample, while two local authorities collected data on their full cohort of families’ (p4). We are also informed that:

‘The data collection methods used represents a significant step forward in evaluating costs and benefits at local authority level. Local authorities sought to use the best available data and to maximise the representativeness of their local samples. However, some samples may not be entirely representative’ (p4).

But we are never actually told what the sampling procedure was, which was a similar problem with the data accompanying the DCLG Understanding Troubled Families report.

Read on a little further and we are told that ‘care should be taken when directly comparing results between local authorities’ (p4) which is, again, a familiar concern with data collected under the TFP. The DCLG press release which featured comments from Eric Pickles, Danny Alexander and Eric Pickles didn’t appear to exhibit much in the way of ‘care’ when it triumphantly proclaimed ‘the new figures showed that the programme had already saved taxpayers an estimated £1.2 billion’. Neither the report nor the methodology document actually mention the figure of £1.2 billion saved, but that didn’t stop the DCLG press ignoring the advice of its own report by extrapolating estimated costs from seven local authorities and applying the same flawed logic to over 150.

These are not official statistics that we are dealing with and local authorities have used their own ‘local administrative systems’ to collect data. Where this has not been possible ‘local authorities have used data provided by key workers’ (p4). So this ‘significant step forward’ includes using data that local authorities already had and asking a few workers to complete some forms – which could be used to help justify or jeopardize their precarious jobs – when they have no other way of finding information.  The report then goes on to acknowledge that ‘data collection limitations have prevented local authorities recording information on every measure’ (p4).One local authority managed to collect information for only 14 of 39 indicators and most achieved around between 22 and 29 out of 39.

As Jonathan Portes pointed out on Twitter, the fact that no impact assessment has been carried out shows that the governments assertions about ‘savings’ are ‘largely meaningless’. The methodology also notes that whilst the cost savings calculator does use ‘the best available ‘deadweight’ estimates’ (p5) to understand what might have happened without the TFP intervention, the report itself deals only with ‘gross’ figures and therefore assumes that all of the ‘savings’ across all of the families can be attributed to the TFP intervention. Which is quite ludicrous really. But then the whole thing is…

Best wishes,

Steve

As I said at the top of this post, I’ll hopefully do more blogs on this in the next couple of days on the language used within the main report and the lack of reference to previous ‘research’ and analysis on the ‘cost’ of ‘troubled families’.

‘Valid claims’ in the Troubled Families Programme

I submitted a Freedom of Information request a few weeks ago regarding the ‘spot checks’ process which DCLG operates in relation to the Troubled Families Programme. On page 10 of the DCLG ‘financial framework’ publication for the programme, it states that in addition to local audit processes for PBR claims submitted by local authorities, Department for Communities and Local Government will carry out a small number of ‘spot checks’ in a sample of areas’.

I received the response last week and it is mildly interesting. I haven’t really got the time to do anything comprehensive with it, or to follow it up with further requests so I thought I’d just leave it here with a couple of initial thoughts.

Firstly, it’s important to note that it is not the same audit process that is being inspected at different times. Each local authority has their own audit process for the TFP – some may be the same but there is no single, centrally identified way of auditing claims made by local authorities in respect of the families they have ‘turned around’. We also don’t know why claims might not have been ‘valid’ – they could have been erroneous or fraudulent, but I didn’t request that information.

Secondly, from the figures provided we can work out that around 2.1% of claims have been ‘spot checked’ in total, which seems, to me at least, very light touch for a new programme working with people leading sometimes very complex lives and for a supposedly ‘radical’ new way of resourcing work with local authorities.

Thirdly, whilst we can’t make any generalisations because of the first point, it would appear, from the last spot check process, that good practice isn’t necessarily being shared, given that 10% of claims ‘spot checked’ were found to be not ‘valid’, compared with between 2% and 3.1% in previous rounds. Who knows why/how this happened? It may have been a ‘rogue authority’ chancing their arm, it may have been an accidental cock-up, it may have been a number of smaller unrelated issues, or it may have been down to the pressure to ‘turn around’ the requisite number of families in time for the Prime Minister’s deadline of May 2016. We just don’t know….

Fourthly, if we were to ‘extrapolate’ from this data, one could suggest that, in the final round of Payment By Results submissions from local authorities, there may have been around 1600 claims that weren’t valid for one reason or another (10% of roughly 16,000 claims submitted in total) covering the period from August 2014 to October 2014. Which seems like quite a lot….

Fifthly, and finally, the benefits system, which is way more complex than all of this runs at around 2% for erroneous and fraudulent claims combined – and we hear quite a lot about the need to radically reform that particular administrative system, but not so much about this one…

So there you go – make of it what you will.

Steve

 

 

Telling stories? Narrative and ‘policy plots’ in the ‘Troubled Families’ agenda

Stock characters – such as greedy politicians with no policy interest except those that lead to their own financial benefit and hopelessly lazy bureaucrats – doubtless do exist. But a policy narrative that rests entirely on stereotypical characters engaged in stereotypical action at least deserves extra scrutiny (Thomas Kaplan 1993, p178)

It was announced this morning that 85,000 ‘troubled families’ had had their lives ‘turned around’ thanks to the government’s Troubled Families Programme (TFP). It’s a sizeable achievement that this success has been achieved so quickly, especially as these families suffer from ‘a culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations’ according to David Cameron when he launched the TFP. And it also suggests that the programme is on course to meet the government’s target of turning all 120,000 ‘troubled families’ around before the end of the current parliament. On the surface at least, it looks a remarkable story. But if, drawing on work around the role of narrative in policy discourse, one scrutinizes the ‘troubled families’ story in a bit more detail, some plot lines begin to unravel, or at least remain unexplained.

Thomas Kaplan, in the classic book, The Argumentative Turn writes that ‘stories can play an important role in argumentative policy analysis’ (p167) and suggests that a good way of analysing policy narratives is to see if it has a ‘recognizable beginning, middle and end’ (p177)*. The ‘troubled families’ story, in many ways, does have a recognizable beginning, middle and end and looking at them in a bit more details lead us to ask some interesting questions.

In the beginning….

At the launch of the Troubled Families Programme, David Cameron announced that ‘we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society’. ‘Troubled families’ can be found in every single local authority area in England so the programme is nationwide, despite it being set up in response to the riots in a small number of towns and cities in 2011. So, in order for the ‘troubled families’ story to be believable and realistic, it would be good to have some background, contextual information, like the answers to the following questions:

When exactly did the families become ‘troubled’? How long ago? What were they like before then? What made them become troubled? How come so many researchers over the last 100 years have got it so wrong in claiming that there isn’t a separate group of ‘troubled’ or ‘problem’ families?

(Science round) If the problems within families are often ‘intergenerational’ how, exactly, are the problems ‘transmitted’ between generations?

Has the number always been 120,000?** How can any changes in the number of ‘troubled families’ be accounted for? If there has never been any change, presumably this mean that these families have never worked? (***intergenerational worklessness klaxon warning***)

How did they come to be spread across every local authority in England? Where were ‘troubled families’ first ‘spotted’? Do ‘troubled families’ exist in Scotland and Wales?

To date, I’m not sure that any of these questions has been adequately addressed by the government, so the origin of the ‘troubled families’ story looks like it could do with a bit more development if it is to become truly believable.

The middle…

Kaplan draws on Paul Ricoeur’s definition of a plot to understand policy action:

‘A plot unifies into one whole and complete action the miscellany constituted by the circumstances, ends and means, initiatives and interactions, the reversals of fortune, and all the unintended consequences issuing from human action’ (p173)

Using this framework, it can, I think, be instructive to think of the Troubled Families Programme as a ‘policy plot’. The TFP is a singular policy response to the many problems associated with ‘troubled families’ – ‘it unifies into one whole and complete action’ – what is needed to ‘turn around’ the families. It also manages the remarkable successes it has achieved at a time of unprecedented austerity measures which have affected both the material circumstances and standard of living of many of the families and the ability of a whole range of services to support them and respond to their needs. Of course, the TFP doesn’t neatly fit with Ricoeur’s definition of a plot, primarily because there have been no ‘reversals of fortune’, no ‘unintended consequences’ have arisen. This particular ‘policy plot’ has apparently ensured seamless progress towards the end of the programme (Phase 1) – 85,000 of the most ‘troubled families’ (or the most disadvantaged) have had their lives ‘turned around’ within three years. And not a backward step has been taken. Not a single noteworthy twist in the plot – see the graph in the DCLG press release here. In fact it’s all been so good, the government have felt able to announce the massive expansion the programme before any evaluation had reported any findings. Despite the ‘internal consistency’ of this narrative of success, there are a couple of questions which behave like loose plotlines:

If a family has on average ‘9 problems’, why does payment for ‘turning their lives around’ only require progress on – and not complete resolution of – at most, two of those problems?

Is it appropriate to class a family as being ‘turned around’ – and to celebrate this – if, for example, domestic violence, substance misuse, poverty, and/or mental health issues are still problems the families experience?

If these are the most ‘troubled’ and ‘troublesome’ families in England, how come a large majority of them are not committing lots of crime and ASB and aren’t at risk of eviction?

Do the families themselves believe their lives have been ‘turned around’? Has anyone thought to ask them?

How can we be sure that the Troubled Families Programme is the reason some of the families have been turned around? What have the family workers done to, for example, find employment for adult members of the family?

The end…

David Cameron set the deadline of the end of the current parliament to ‘turn around’ the lives of these ‘troubled families’ and we are now witnessing remarkable progress towards this ‘ambition’. We have already seen Phase 2 of the programme begin with 400,000 more ‘troubled families’ with different problems identified about to be worked with over the coming years. Now, call me a sceptic, but some nagging doubts about the appropriateness of this ‘happy end’ still persist:

Isn’t it an amazing coincidence that this amazing success story is close to turning around almost the exact number of ‘troubled families’ required whilst working with vastly reduced resources and within the timescale set out by the Prime Minister?

How many of the families whose lives have been ‘turned around’ during the programme, have stayed ‘turned around’ and how many of them, for whatever reasons, have encountered troubles again or lost employment?

How were the 400,000 new ‘troubled families’ missed when the initial 120,000 were identified? Have they always been ‘troubled’ or have they just become ‘troubled’ recently?

And of course, with any new batch of ‘troubled families’, the same questions should be applied to these as with the initial 120,000 families. Again, the answers to the questions above haven’t been addressed to date, as far as I am aware. We do know that some local authorities are not monitoring families once they ‘exit’ the programme. So, at present, with 400,000 more ‘troubled families’ springing up from nowhere, one doesn’t know where the story will eventually end….

Best wishes,

Steve

Kaplan, T. J. (1993) Reading Policy Narratives, in F. Fischer & J. Forester (eds), The Argumentative Turn, London: Duke University Press

*I’ve focused here on one particular strand within Kaplan’s chapter, he offers a much broader critique of policy narratives. And, of course, other authors have written extensively about policy narratives as well.

**Trick question – we know the number of families with multiple disadvantages hasn’t always been 120,000 – over a five year period, the number of families ‘at risk’ in Great Britain was estimated to fluctuate between 130,000 and 160,000 – see here

Has the Troubled Families Programme itself been ‘turned around’?

Now that the riots have happened I will make sure that we clear away the red tape and the bureaucratic wrangling, and put rocket boosters under this programme…

…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

(David Cameron, 15 August 2011)

On Wednesday of last week, The Guardian published a story, following a press release from DCLG that suggested that the government had met their ‘troubled families’ ‘target’ with 9 months to spare. The article stated:

Families have been brought into government programme nine months earlier than planned, local authority figures suggest

The government claims to have reached its target of starting to help 120,000 troubled families nine months earlier than planned.

There had been scepticism, including from the National Audit Office and public accounts committee (PAC) that central and local government would be able to identify as many as 120,000 families in need of help. The 120,000 needed to be identified between April 2012 and May 2015

This ‘success’ was also reported in an article in The Independent this morning (3/11/2014). Such ‘success’ in reaching the government’s target would indicate that the target had changed since the inception of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP).Then, the target was to ‘turn around’ the lives of these families by the end of the current parliament, not merely identify and start working with them, as David Cameron noted in his fightback speech following the 2011 riots, at the top of this post, and at the launch of the TFP in December 2011, below

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

As the piece referred to both the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and National Audit Office (NAO) reports, I revisited them to check that I hadn’t missed anything. The NAO report is very explicit that the ‘objective’ of the TFP is to ‘turn around the lives of 120,000 troubled families between 1 April 2012 and 31 May 2015’ (p4). This is repeated in different ways a number of times and the report also interestingly notes that DCLG have advised authorities to work with more than their indicative number of families in order to help ensure that they turn round the target number (p20). The PAC report is equally unequivocal

In 2012, DCLG and DWP each introduced separate programmes to help these families. DCLG’s Troubled Families programme, with a central government budget of £448 million, aims to ‘turn around’ all 120,000 families by May 2015.

We welcome the commitment shown by all those involved in the DCLG’s programme to achieve lasting improvement in the lives of 120,000 troubled families by May 2015. The target set requires each of the 152 local authorities in England to identify and then “turn around” families that meet the definition of a troubled family (p5, emphases added).

So, there is nothing in the reports that suggest that the target has changed and there has been no official announcement about a change of target. The article in The Guardian is also all the more surprising given that the paper has often been gently critical of the TFP and, in June of this year, they published an article which was highly critical of the potential of the programme to reach the target.

The source of the misunderstanding, then, might be traced to what I would argue is a duplicitous statement in the DCLG press release accompanying the latest publication of local authority figures. The press release states

The Communities Secretary on Wednesday (29 October 2014) welcomed the latest success of the scheme, which has now succeeded in reaching almost all of the hardest to help homes in the country that the Prime Minister pledged to help (emphases added).

Of course, the statement doesn’t state that the/a target has been met, but it does, at the very least, suggest a ‘success’ in meeting the Prime Minister’s ‘pledge’. The release also states that ‘99% of families targeted (are) being worked with by local teams’. The fact that, with around 9 months left to reach the actual target set by the Prime Minister the nearly three years ago, around 42% of the families have not been ‘turned around’ yet, didn’t stop Eric Pickles saying ‘It’s a triple-win; an amazing programme; and we’re going to extend its reach as far as possible’

The amount of positive spin being placed on this programme shouldn’t surprise us. I blogged earlier this year that the Prime Minister had too much political capital invested in the scheme to allow it to be viewed as a failure and we should remember that ‘troubled families’ were a ‘problem’ created and constructed by this government precisely because they believed that they could solve the ‘problem’. There have been numerous misrepresentations of data and figures both in the construction of the perceived problem and, now, in the extent of the government’s success in solving it. This is merely the latest in a long line of misinformation which plays a core part of this ‘policy racket’ and which, unfortunately, on this occasion, has been swallowed by two respected national newspapers.

(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 2)

‘These families are off the barometer in the number of problems they have. We are beginning to achieve a revolution in how you deal with the worst families in Britain – worst in that they have the worst problems. Frankly, they cause the most problems and, frankly, you wouldn’t want to live with them’ Louise Casey in The Daily Express, 18 August 2014

‘She (Casey) described the case of a mother of 10. “She was seen as an antisocial behaviour case,” she said. “The house was a tip … She said to the team, ‘I can’t keep on top of the recycling,’ and you thought: tell another mug that, but not me’ The Sunday Times, 17 August 2014

When David Cameron launched the Troubled Families Programme in the aftermath of the English riots of 2011, he embellished his speech with a ‘true story’ of one family where numerous state services had been involved, including the following:

“The police were called out to their home 58 times, including five arrests and 109 hours of police work … Two injunctions were issued against tenants. Neighbours kept complaining to the council about disruptive behaviour. Two children were subject to different sets of close supervision by youth offending teams. There was a summons for non-payment of council tax…and on and on it went.”

Since then, ‘troubled families’ have been linked with a wide variety of social problems including Domestic Violence, teenage pregnancy, children at risk and, wait for it, violent extremism, leading to the frequent labelling of them as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘chaotic’. The publication of the ‘Understanding Troubled Families’ report, according to Louise Casey, ‘paints a picture of families sinking under the weight of multiple problems’, which can then ‘spiral out of control’ if they remain unchecked.  The report claimed that, on average, nine serious ‘problems’ exist in any one family at any one time. ‘Problems’, as defined in the report, include having a child  with a statement of Special Educational Need and having a long-term limiting illness or disability.

Leaving the issue of what constitutes a problem aside (that will be covered in Part 3), serious concerns should exist about the quality of the data, which are not official statistics and which have been collected from local authorities – see Part 1 here. However, if we take a leap of faith and take the data at face value, the interpretation and representation of the data should also cause us some concern. One could argue that Casey has adopted something akin to a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ in interpreting the data, seeking out the negative angles to the data, as the examples at the top of the blog and the clipping below from the Sunday Times front page suggest (clicking on the image should increase its size).

unnamed

If, however, one adopts something approaching a ‘hermeneutics of faith’ in examining the data, a very different picture can begin to emerge. For example, in contrast to the workless ‘neighbours from hell’ who ruin not only their lives but the lives of their children and those living next to them and are a constant drain on resources, we can find the following from the data behind the report:

  • 84% of families had children who were not permanently excluded from school
  • 26% of families had at least one adult in work
  • 77% of families did not have any young people classified as ‘NEET’
  • 78% were not at risk of eviction for any reason
  • 71% of those living in rented accommodation were not in rent arrears
  • 88% of families had no children on a Child Protection Plan
  • 77% of children did not have any children identified as being children in need
  • 85% of families had no adults with a proven criminal offence in the previous 6 months
  • 97% of families had children with either 1 or no criminal offences in the previous 6 months
  • 58% of families had no police callouts in the previous 6 months
  • 95% of families had no family members identified as being Prolific and Priority Offenders (PPO)
  • 89% of families had no adult subject to an ASB intervention
  • 93% of families had no identified gang members in the family
  • 93% of families had no adults clinically diagnosed as being dependent on alcohol
  • 93% of families had no adults clinically diagnosed as being dependent on non-prescription drugs

Whilst these figures show that there are undoubtedly some problems within ‘troubled families’ what they also show is that the reality of the families might appear to be somewhat different to the stereotypical, stigmatising image of them put forward by politicians, civil servants and certain sections of the media. The example of a police officer stationed on a family’s settee being a cheaper option than responding to all of the call-outs is a familiar one and was used in the Sunday Time article, but the data shows that it is an entirely inappropriate one to illustrate the experience of the majority of the families being talked about as, for example, only 5% of families included individuals known to be priority and prolific offenders. We should also remember that the data relates to families entering the TF programme in its very earliest stages – presumably these were the families that most easily fitted the criteria and were the ones already best known to services. One might conclude that they may therefore have more ‘troubles’ than later entrants to the programme, a conclusion which could be supported by some local authorities claiming to be unable to find their allocated number of ‘troubled families’

An alternative reading of the data could therefore include the findings which show that the majority of these ‘troubled families’ have children who are not excluded from school, are able to care for and bring up their children without statutory intervention of any kind, are not in rent arrears and are involved in no – or very low levels of – crime and ASB. Over a quarter of the families were in work within 6 months of the time of entry to the programme despite Casey previously stating that “We have known that there is a group of families who didn’t work in the boom times and won’t work in the bust times. They’re unemployed; they’re dependent on benefits.” As the data suggests, many of them don’t match this description and because of the way the data has been collected and reported, we do not know (or are not told) how many of the families had an adult in work in the  7, 8, 9 or 12 or 24 months prior to entering the programme.(Please see update below) We do know, however, that people often churn in and out of insecure, low-paid jobs and that ‘in work’ or ‘out-of-work’ are not static, unchanging categories, despite the attempt here to portray them as such. The reason for individuals being out of work is not reported either. Given the health data, it would not be surprising if a large number of families had nobody in work because of limiting illness, disability or caring responsibilities. This sort of detail probably doesn’t help the ‘workshy’ image of the families that Casey is eager to cultivate.

In choosing to interpret and present the data at her disposal in this way, Casey is arguably guilty of what Thomas Teo, drawing on the work of Gayatri Spivak, has called ‘epistemological violence’. Teo suggests that:

“Epistemological violence is a practice that is executed … when interpretative speculations regarding results implicitly or explicitly construct the ‘Other’ as problematic. The term epistemological suggests that these speculations are framed as knowledge when in reality they are interpretative speculations regarding data. The term violence denotes that this ‘knowledge’ has a negative impact on the ‘Other’ and that the interpretative speculations are produced to the detriment of the ‘Other’.”

In highlighting the potential different readings of the family monitoring data provided by local authorities, we should not seek to deny that many ‘troubled families’ lead complex lives or that some families do cause trouble for other people. When a programme specifically and deliberately targets some of our poorest and most disadvantaged families, we shouldn’t be surprised when issues such as unemployment, domestic violence, crime, lone parenthood, educational problems and mental health issues can be found. After all, these issues occur across all cross-sections of society. What should, perhaps, be more noteworthy, given the difficulties they face and the conditions and stresses under which many of them live, is the fact that many of them appear to function reasonably well, and without succumbing to the ‘Shameless’ stereotype perpetuated by Casey and the right wing press.

Part 1 of (Mis)Understanding Troubled Families can be found here

****UPDATE 21 October 2014. It would appear that I’ve misunderstood some of the data relating to the Understanding Troubled Families report that the Working Paper is based on. I initially thought the in-work/out-of-work figures related only to the time of a families’ entry to the programme. It turns out that the ‘in-work’ figures relate toan adult member of the household being in employment at any time during the 6 months prior to entry into the programme. I have updated the blog to reflect this and hopefully the information above is correct. My original concerns about the presentation of the data still largely stand. Apologies for the unintended misunderstanding****

‘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’?’

‘High risk’ families and ‘decision-based evidence making’

On 24th June 2013, the government announced that the Troubled Families Programme was going to see a ‘massive expansion’ that would lead to an extra ‘400,000 high risk families’ receiving ‘intensive help’. There was a lack of further detail in the announcement, and so I sent a Freedom of Information request to DCLG to see if I could find out a bit more about the 400,000 newly identified families. The main bulk of the text from my request is below

… could you please provide me with the following information regarding the expansion of the Troubled Families Programme to include ‘high risk families’

  1. Information relating to how the figure of 400,000 high risk families was calculated –  including details of the methodology and any data sources used.
  2. Will the 400,000 high risk families be broken down into individual local authority areas as the Troubled Families have been and, if this has already happened, could you please provide the details of these numbers and how they were calculated.
  3. What the criteria for being identified as a ‘high risk family’ is. i.e. what is the definition of a high risk family?
  4. How many families the £200 million is expected be spent on. i.e. how much money per family does the government expect to be allocating to local authorities in 2015-2016.
  5. Clarify if the £200 million is ‘for’ 2015-2016 or is ‘available from’ 2015-2016. If it is the latter, could you please provide details of the term that the funding covers. (there is some ambiguity on the gov website regarding this)
  6. Details of the Payment By Results framework for high risk families. What outcomes will need to be achieved for councils to access the PBR programme and when will the government contribution be allocated?
  7. Information on the ‘new incentives for services such as the police, health and social work to work more closely together in order to reduce costs’ that are mentioned on the government website published on 24 June 2013 relating to the extra funding.

I received a response from DCLG just over a week ago and, unfortunately, it didn’t provide me with much extra detail. The response included clarification on point 5 – the £200 million funding is for the financial year 2015-2016, with further allocations presumably subject to future spending reviews

Unfortunately, that was the only real clarification I received. The response from DCLG states

In relation to the remaining questions, I can confirm that the Department does hold some of the information falling within the terms of your request.  However, it is being withheld because it is exempt from disclosure under section 35(1)(a) and (b) of the Freedom of Information Act.  This relates to the formulation or development of government policy and ministerial communications. 

The response went on to state that

the development of the detail of the expanded programme is still in its early stages and further work is required to ensure that the vision set out in the Government’s announcement is translated into a rigorous policy framework and delivery model.

Whilst I can appreciate that this may be the case for points 2, 4, 6 & 7, it seems a bit unsatisfactory when applied to points 1 and 3. The figure of 400,000 is used 6 times in the 2 ‘news story’ documents on the DCLG website promoting the expansion (here and here) and was widely reported in several newspapers at the same time. I would propose that his number appears to have already been formulated and, therefore, is no longer under development. If the number has been agreed (which, I would suggest, it obviously has) there must have been some methodology supporting it (point 1) and that methodology must have included criteria or a definition (point 3). You surely cannot count something unless you are clear about what it is you are trying to count.  Again, there were some references to the ‘troubles’ that families might have been experiencing and which might identify them as ‘high risk’  in both of the DCLG ‘news story’ documents. Danny Alexander stated that

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

whilst Louise Casey said

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.

Of course, as the response from DCLG states, the government may well have this information, but have chosen not to release it because it “the public interest is best served by protecting the need for the necessary degree of internal discussion, during which suggestions can be made and considered” and “there is a powerful public interest in ensuring that there is space in which ministers and officials are able to discuss policy making and implementation”

All of this reminded me very much of a phrase used by Tom Slater (which he attributed to Rob Penfold), that of ‘decision-based evidence making’ (Boden & Epstein have also called it policy-based evidence making).

A decision has been taken to ‘massively expand’ the TFP and it has been announced in a very high profile way. However, at present, there is no evidence in the public domain that allows the public the opportunity to scrutinize this policy, which isn’t very transparent or accountable. One could conclude, if one were slightly cynical about the TFP, that civil servants were currently trying to produce evidence that supported the policy that had already been decided and announced.

But then, we know that statistics and criteria isn’t the strong point of the TFP and, as Eric Pickles himself has said in relation to this programme, ‘I’m in a hurry.’  Why let facts get in the way of a good story?

Reference

Slater T (2008) “A literal necessity to be replaced”: A rejoinder to the gentrification debate. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32(1) 212-223

I am planning to ask for an internal review of the decision, and will post again when I hear the outcome of this review.