‘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?



Not ‘dirty work’, but ‘the work that dirt does’

‘I want to see people rolling up their sleeves and getting down and cleaning the floors if that is what needs to be done’

Louise Casey in The Times, 27 April 2012

A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation at the SPA ‘Getting with the Programme’ ‘troubled families’ event in Lancaster. The event featured talks by Imogen Tyler, Andrew Sayer, Rob Macdonald and Andrew Wallace, all of which can be viewed here.

I talked about the imagery of family workers allegedly needing to ‘roll their sleeves up’ and don the marigolds’ to help ‘turn around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’. The presentation can be found here.

A member of the audience suggested that I had ‘anonymised’ the workers in my presentation and that I didn’t fully appreciate the circumstances and situations which they often encountered in families homes. She gave an example of homes where dog faeces inside the house presented an issue for the children’s health. I don’t disagree that some families will live in very dirty, unclean homes which present health risks to all members of the family, but especially children, and it wasn’t my intention to either anonymise or ‘have a go’ at practitioners who feel disgusted when they walk into these houses. I didn’t talk about either of these things in any great detail at all, primarily because my focus was not on the ‘dirty work’ that might need to be undertaken in some households, but on the work that dirt does – the functions it fulfils as a signifier of difference.

In the 1950s, mention of dirt and squalor in descriptions of the ‘problem families’ of the time were fairly commonplace. John Macnicol suggests that these descriptions were often:

‘highly charged class-prejudicial accounts of the children’s behaviour that gave the impression that a large section of the British working class were the ‘great unwashed’ living lives of dirt, disorder and incorrigible irresponsibility, their bodies riddled by headlice and impetigo, lacking elementary domestic manners and culturally alienated – in short, urban savages of the worst kind (Macnicol 1987:71)

Other constructions of the underclass thesis have not highlighted dirt or lack of hygiene to the same extent – concepts such as Charles Murray’s version of the ‘underclass’ and Labour’s social exclusion and ‘Respect’ agendas have focussed on different allaegedly problematic behaviours, often carried out externally. But with the focus very much back on families along with an incessant rhetoric about the need for family workers to ‘get in through the front door’ and perform practical tasks with the families to gain their trust, the focus is very much back on domestic functioning and (in)competence. Even within the de-gendered discourse of ‘troubled families’, the focus on the internal space as the site of  intervention, and the emphasis on practical tasks such as establishing a bedtime routine for children, getting them up and to school on time and helping with cooking and cleaning, strongly suggests that it is mothers who are the primary target of the programme. This focus also simplifies the families alleged problems, helping to shift the focus from external or structural issues which have an obvious impact on behaviour and circumstances within the home. Is Mr. Muscle and a pair of Marigolds really a priority when there isn’t enough money to feed or clothe the family?

Extreme cases of dirt will exist which raise concerns about child wellbeing and/or neglect. But the monitoring data gathered by local authorities, ropey though it is, suggests that only around 12% of families involved with the programme had a child on a child protection plan. Less than a quarter had a child designated as a child in need on entry to the programme. Obviously, not all homes viewed as ‘dirty’ by workers will merit statutory monitoring or intervention (asnd not all concerns about children will relate to ‘dirt’), but the danger of associating ‘troubled families’ with a lack of hygiene, either at the extreme level or as a general rule of thumb, should be clear:

‘It may not greatly matter if the average middle-class person is brought up to believe that the working classes are ignorant, lazy, drunken, boorish and dishonest; it is when he is brought up to believe that they are dirty that the harm is done’ Orwell (1989:119)

If we start believing that all ‘troubled families’ are dirty and need help from workers to ‘clear up and make their homes fit to live in(DCLG 2012:21 emphasis added) we run the risk of falling into the framing trap set for us by the government. (Imogen Tyler, presenting work by her and Tracey Jensen, provided an excellent example of the way that extreme cases involving disadvantage and deviancy are framed and crafted to represent the norm by highlighting media and political representations of the Philpott case). It encourages us to start with the assumption that these families are ‘dirty’ and are therefore ‘different’ to ‘us’. Which is ‘the harm’ that Orwell wrote about.

But the solution-focused rhetoric of workers ‘rolling up their sleeves’ and ‘getting stuck in’ also simplifies the role of the state in supporting ‘troubled families’.  And whilst having a cleaner or tidier home for a little while is likely to help everyone, and not just ‘troubled families’ (think of how many middle-class families employ a cleaner or a private company or similar help to perform exactly the kinds of tasks as a family worker is expected to perform, in order to help them keep their homes looking nice and clean), it is hardly likely to ‘turn around’ their lives. Having a clean and tidy house does not help to pay the rent, it is unlikely to catch the attention on a CV submitted to an employer and I’ve yet to see any evidence that it is a cure for long term health issues or disabilities. I’m not being flippant here. Of course, having a cleaner house may help with some things – it may help a child do their homework better if there is a clear space for them to do it, it may make people feel a little better about things, alleviating some stress. For some families, it may genuinely represent a fresh start. But I’d argue that for the half a million families now identified as being ‘troubled’, getting help with a ‘spring clean’ this Easter probably isn’t the most important thing the state could be doing to help them ‘turn around’ their lives.


DCLG (2012) Working with Troubled Families [Online] Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/66113/121214_Working_with_troubled_families_FINAL_v2.pdf  [25 November 2014]

Macnicol, J. (1987) In pursuit of the underclass, Journal of Social Policy, 16 (3), 293-318

Orwell, G. (1989) Road to Wigan Pier, London: Penguin

*** The full list of references used in the talk can be found in the presentation, but  the work of Imogen Tyler and Steph Lawler was very helpful in preparing the presentation. Their work on ‘disgust’ is brilliant.***

Lawler, S. (2005) Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities, The Sociological Review, 53, 3, 429-446

Tyler, I. (2013) Revolting subjects, London: Zed Books (esp pp21-28)

Policing ‘troubled families’ through ‘algorithmic regulation’

These dynamic systems can handle unstructured, messy and unpredictable data and respond in real-time to new ways of acting on patterns in the data. Like a shoal of startled fish, the application of this heterogeneous data can sharply change direction at any moment. (McQuillan, 2015: 3)

There are tools available that can help authorities to identify the most vulnerable children and families in their area, even as their circumstances change. Technology can now automatically alert a social worker when a child starts to miss lessons or allow a youth offending practitioner to instantly pull up a history of school exclusions for a child they are visiting. (Neal, 2014)

An interesting, but generally overlooked, aspect of the Troubled Families Programme is the increasing reliance and emphasis on data related issues. I often come across articles on the internet from software companies and management consultancy firms offer ‘data solutions’ to some of the challenges presented by working with ‘complex’ families. The quote above by Phil Neal, MD of Private Eye favourite C(r)apita One is taken from this post on the Public Servant Daily here and other examples, including different ones by Neal, can be found here, here, here and here

I may never have got around to posting this blog, if I hadn’t been sent a brilliant and disturbing paper by Dan McQuillan on ‘Algorithmic states of exception’. It’s very difficult to summarise the paper, so I’m not going to try to do that in the hope that you’ll be sufficiently intrigued to read it yourselves, but McQuillan makes the point that new data structures and new types of database allow for a form of ‘algorithmic regulation’ which can be used to ‘predict’, ‘identify’ and ‘modify’ social problems as they are envisaged by the government. He uses the Troubled Families Programme as an example and when I read this section, I was instantly reminded of a paragraph from Donzelot’s classic text The policing of families. The two excerpts are below, both emphases are mine:

At the start, there are always the figures on delinquency, the statistics of offences committed by minors. Experts in criminology study this first layer and detect in the delinquent minors’ past, in the organization of families, the signs they have in common, the invariables of their situation, the first symptoms of their bad actions. With the help of these findings, the typical portrait of the future delinquent, the predelinquent, the child in danger of becoming dangerous, can be drawn up. An infrastructure of prevention will then be erected around him, and an educative machinery will be set in motion, a timely action capable of stopping him short of a criminal violation. Not only will he be an object of intervention, but by the same token, he will in turn become an object of knowledge. The family climate, the social context that causes a particular child to become a “risk,” will be thoroughly studied. The catalogue of these indications makes it possible to encompass all forms of maladjustment, so as to construct a second circle of prevention. (Donzelot 1977: 97-98)

The way society disciplines citizens through discourses of health, criminality, madness and security (Foucault, 1977) are given categorical foundations in the structures of data. Consider, for example, the category of ‘troubled families’ created by the Department for Communities and Local Government (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2014) to identify families as requiring specific forms of intervention from the agencies in contact with them. The 40,000 or so families whose ‘lives have been turned around’, by being assigned a single keyworker tasked with getting them in to work and their children back to school on a payment by results model, would have been identified through some operations on the data fields that make their existence legible to the government. In turn, various agencies and processes would have operated on those individuals as both effect and affect, as a created intensity of experiential state, in ways that would construct the subjectivity of membership of a so-called troubled family. These actions would, in turn, become new content for data fields and would form the substrate for future interventions. Thus, the proliferation of data does not simply hedge the privacy of enlightenment individuals but produces new subjectivities and forms of action. (McQuillan, 2015: 2)

Essentially, we have seen Donzelot’s prediction ‘re-booted’ and put in a cloud via a ‘technological turn’. McQuillan argues that, as a result of new data structures and increased contact with technology, ‘everyday life is becoming permeated by points of contact with algorithmic systems that can influence the friction or direction of our experience’ (2105: 5). When these technologies seep into the public sector and the realm of social control, it affords states the opportunity to ‘predict’ who will do what in the future, and establish procedures, sanctions and exclusions to stop them from doing so. Of course, some populations, such as those deemed to be ‘troubled’ will have more ‘points of contact’ with the state than others and some will already be ‘known’ to agents of the state.

And then, serendipitously, DCLG published a document on Data Sharing Guidance and Principles, as an Annex to the new Financial Framework for the expanded phase of the Troubled Families Programme. The document suggests ways that the maximum amount of personal and familial data can be shared between service providers in a ‘legally compliant manner’ across each of the six criteria for being a ‘troubled family’. And, as if that wasn’t enough, a final section highlights how frontline workers can ‘nominate’ families where they believe there exist ‘problems of equivalent concern’:

These indicators enable nominations from professionals locally and, depending on the nature of the risk and seriousness of the circumstances, may be undertaken with or without the individual’s consent. In some cases, consent must be obtained by law before a nomination is made. However, in cases where consent is not prescribed by law, individuals should be made aware that their data is being shared and their consent should be sought wherever possible. However, this will be a matter for local assessment and professional judgment in the circumstances of each case (DCLG, 2015: 7)

Nothing to worry about there then….



Donzelot, J. (1997) The Policing of Families, Johns Hopkins: Baltimore

McQuillan, D (2015, forthcoming) ‘Algorithmic States of Exception’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol 18, No 4-5, ISSN 1367-5494


Paul Garrett has also written previously about the ‘electronic turn’ in social work which highlights similar concerns and also highlights some of the potential benefits of social workers engaging with new forms of technology.

And, finally, many thanks to the individual who bought Dan McQuillan’s paper to my attention. Much appreciated.

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,


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.




‘Getting with the Programme’ Workshop 2


‘Getting with the Programme’

Workshop 2: Theory & Sociological Views

5 March 2015 12:45 – 17:00

Meeting Room 1, FASS Building, Lancaster University

The Troubled Families Programme is one of the coalition government’s highest profile social policies, aiming to ‘turn around’ the lives of 120,000 of the most ‘troubled families’ in England. Recently expanded to include 400,000 more families, the programme has been heralded as a success and as a new way of working which meets both the needs of the families involved and ‘the taxpayer’, keen to see spending on such families reduced.

This workshop includes a keynote speech from Dr. Imogen Tyler and will then be split into three sections, with speakers from four different universities:

                    Dr John Welshman, Lancaster University
•                    Dr Imogen Tyler, Lancaster University
•                    Professor Andrew Sayer, Lancaster University
•                    Professor Robert MacDonald, Teesside University
•                    Dr Andrew Wallace, Lincoln University
•                    Stephen Crossley, Durham University

The first part will explore issues of class and how they intersect with the development of the Troubled Families Programme; the second part will locate the concept of ‘troubled families’ within wider sociological research and analysis, including consideration of structural issues and media representations; the final part of the workshop will allow for discussion, responses and feedback from audience members, with a view to influencing what might happen both at, and following, the final workshop in London in April.

We expect demand for this free event to be very high and places are limited so please book early to avoid disappointment. The workshop is open to all and we hope that practitioners, policy makers, researchers and students will all be interested in attending. For more information and to book a place at this event, please click here  

If you have any queries regarding the event, please contact m.lambert@lancaster.ac.uk

This event is supported by a grant from the Social Policy Association


‘Troubled Families’ reading list

I’ve put together a very brief introductory reading list on ‘troubled families’. That’s about it really. You can access it by clicking here  or on the image below

Reading list

If anyone has suggestions for other papers, please do let me know, via comments if possible so that others can also see them. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive list or a full literature review, just a list of some articles/books/reports which have been helpful to me in learning more about the Troubled Families Programme, where it came from and the model of ‘family intervention’ on which it is based.

If there’s enough good suggestions, I’ll update it at some point in the future.

Best wishes,


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,


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