‘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.

What does ‘turning around’ a ‘troubled family’ really mean?

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Last week DCLG announced that ‘The Troubled Families scheme has turned around the lives of 14,000 of England’s toughest to tackle households in just 15 months’. Eric Pickles suggested that this number was ‘phenomenal’ and ‘a huge achievement to have turned so many around in such a short space of time.’ So, great news all round then.

But does it all sound a bit too good to be true? Most press coverage that I have seen repeats the phrase ‘turning around’ without examining or explaining exactly what it means, so that is what this post is about.

The 14,000 number comes from figures released last week which show that, across England, local authorities have claimed the performance-by-results payment from DCLG for certain outcomes achieved by this number of families. In total, nearly 50,000 ‘troubled families’ have been worked with, but only 14,000 have so far achieved the outcomes required for the ‘incentive’ payment.

Let us, at this point, remember that the initial figure for how many ‘troubled families’ there were in England was based on the number who, in the Family & Children Survey 2005, reported having 5 out of 7 of the following ‘disadvantages’:

a) no parent in work,

b) poor quality housing,

c) no parent with qualifications,

d) mother with mental health problems,

e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness,

f) family has low income,

g) Family cannot afford some food/clothing items

The table below (taken from p9 of the TFP Financial Framework) shows what outcomes are required for local authorities to claim for the result based payment. You will note that none of the criteria in the table relate to housing, qualifications, maternal mental health, disability/illness, income (being in work doesn’t always guarantee you a higher income – think zero hours contracts) or deprivation. (See Ruth Levitas’ paper ‘There may be trouble ahead’ for a full discussion on what this ‘discursive shift’ means). Clicking on the table should open it in a larger format.

TFP financial framework

What is interesting is that local authorities can – and many have – claim to have ‘turned round’ the life of a ‘troubled family’ if certain aspects of their behaviour changes, even though they may not have found work. In other words, their material circumstances may not have improved and may even have got worse. So, if the TFP is about stopping families behaving badly, that might still seem like a positive result, but if the payment is based on their kids starting to attend school a bit more for a 6 month period or things ‘quieten down’ for a bit, it doesn’t, I would argue, amount to their life being ‘turned around’. Positive, welcome steps, yes. Complete turnaround, no.

But it is also possible for a local authority to claim money (£800) if at least one adult in the family moves into continuous employment, without any other behaviour change. So, these families can continue behaving exactly as they have done (it may or may not have been troublesome behaviour) and the government will claim their lives have been turned around, as long as they have ‘moved into continuous employment’ for 6 months. Continuous employment is variously defined as 26 weeks out of 30 (is this continuous – or a possible example of ‘churning’ in and out of employment – a low-pay, no-pay cycle?) or 13 consecutive weeks (3 month temporary contract anyone?) depending on which benefits were originally being claimed.

There is a third way of claiming £100, linked to the crime/ASB/education outcomes if an adult in the family ‘progresses towards work’.

One thing worth noting here is that money can be paid out on an ‘either or’ basis – but not twice. So if a family meets the crime/ASB/education criteria and an adult finds work, the local authority will only be paid £800, not £1500. So there is, one could argue, no incentive – perhaps even a disincentive – to adopt a holistic ‘whole family’ approach to a resolving ‘troubles’. However, the way it is often reported, ‘turning around’ a family often appears to include ALL of these things. A good example is a written statement Eric Pickles gave to Parliament. He said:

Up to the end of July 2013, upper-tier local authorities have reported that they have turned around nearly 14,000 troubled families. The figure represents a seven-fold increase from January which means children are back in school for at least 3 terms where they were previously playing truant or excluded; high levels of youth crime and anti-social behaviour are down over at least 6 months; and adults are getting off benefits and into work for at least 3 months. (my emphasis)

Another example can be found in an article in The Telgraph which states that ‘Families are considered to be “turned around” if several measures are met, including if children go back to school, adults are taken off benefits and levels of criminal behaviour are reduced’ (my emphasis)

So, a troubled family’s life can be counted as being ‘turned around’ even if there remains no adult in work in the household or, if one adult does find work, they can commit as much ASB/crime/truancy as they like and the government will still pay out as they’ll be deemed ‘trouble-free’. In fact, looking at the release of the figures, in less than 5% of those families that had been ‘turned around’ did an adult move into ‘continuous employment’. In the North East, it was closer to 2.6%. In Newcastle, the city council ‘turned around’ the lives of 303 families, none of whom found work or achieved the ‘progress to work’ outcome. What would Jim Royle say if he was asked if these families lives had been ‘turned around’?

I’m also intrigued by how the government is able to claim that all of the ‘success’ that has been achieved is the the result of the TFP approach. How many of these families would have found employment without the support of the ‘key worker’? How many would have been supported to change their behaviour through other (perhaps existing) approaches or without any help atall? The answer is we don’t know. A guide to evidence and good practice in working with ‘troubled families’, published by DCLG earlier this year notes that

There are some notable limitations to the evidence base. The first is that most studies are limited in what can be concluded from them about the degree to which improvements for families are attirubtable to the intervention specifically, when external factors are taken into account. (p34, my emphasis)

An independent evaluation of the TFP has been commissioned (which may examine control groups or other approaches) but it hasn’t published any findings yet. So how can Eric Pickles claim that ‘these figures show that our no-nonsense approach is changing families for the better’?

A final problem (for now) is that people’s lives are complex, they are dynamic and much as the government would like to portray these families as a lumpen, static underclass, their circumstances (or behaviours if you want to see it in that way) can and do change over time, as the results suggest. But, such is the ‘burden on the taxpayer’ from these families, the government wants to ‘deliver maximum value for money’ and so they have stated in the TFP Financial Framework that ‘we need to ensure as far as possible, that we don’t pay twice for the same family’ (p10) and the TFP funding is only available for ‘turning around the lives of five out of every six troubled family in each local authority area’ (p11). So, there is no financial incentive if, after receiving payment for turning around a family’s life, a child from that family stops attending school, or ASB incidents start to happen again or if the working adult finds themselves out of work again. If achieving these outcomes count as turning around their lives one must also accept that a lapse or lapses must be devastating and must have serious consequences.

All of this raises concerns about PBR and ‘incentivising’ methods in public services, which have been articulated elsewhere but it does mean that public sector bodies will be expected to work with families with serious and multiple disadvantages without the dangling carrot of £700 or £800 at the end of it. Pretty much like they and their workers have been doing for many, many years before the TFP came along – and will still be doing long after it has gone.