Listening? Or ‘discernment at a distance’?

A report published by DCLG last year called ‘Listening to Troubled Families’ caused a small amount of controversy. The report, based on interviews conducted by Louise Casey, was accused of not following ethical guidelines in research. The DCLG claimed it was not ‘formal research’ and Casey herself has claimed that she never ‘pretended that (it) was research with a capital ‘R’’ but the criticisms are, I would argue, still valid. Nick Bailey of the University of Glasgow has highlighted failures in regard to the free and informed consent of the participants, issues around confidentiality and non-disclosure and concerns around sound and appropriate methods and interpretation of findings.

Despite these criticisms of her approach on this occasion, Casey has consistently argued that it is vital to listen to the ‘Troubled Families’ in order to better understand them and help to ‘turn their lives round’. She talks, in the foreword to the report of wanting ‘to get to know these families’ and elsewhere of wanting to ‘connect with the actual families and get under the skin of what’s happened to them in their lives’. In a recent appearance before the DCLG Select Committee, Casey said

I do not believe that the policy for which you are accountable to Ministers should be divorced from the human beings on the receiving end of it … It is incredibly important, in roles like mine, to remember what all of this is for. There is nothing like meeting those families and realising just how difficult their lives have been and the backgrounds many of them have come from … Throughout the jobs I have had the privilege to hold, it has been important for me to remember, with some degree of humility, what this is all about.(my emphasis)

In terms of the work taking place on the ground, Casey also noted that

You are not in a fighting relationship with the families. When families talk about this work they refer to, say, Jayne, being the first person who has ever listened to what they wanted; nobody has ever helped them before. (my emphasis)

The report makes for very depressing reading and Casey notes that the families ‘had entrenched, long-term cycles of suffering problems and causing problems’ with a particular emphasis on violence and abuse:

The most striking common theme that families described was the history of sexual and physical abuse, often going back generations; the involvement of the care system in the lives of both parents and their children, parents having children very young, those parents being involved in violent relationships, and the children going on to have behavioural problems, leading to exclusion from school, anti-social behaviour and crime. (p1)

Whenever I read the report, I am reminded of writing by Steph Lawler to describe another set of wider interviews into ‘suffering’. She argued that the researchers had sought out the very worst of circumstances, conveying ‘little but hopelessness’, arguing that ‘misery was what they went looking for, and misery is what they found’ (2005, p434)

However, the concern with ‘listening’ to these families and some wider elements of the Troubled Families Programme such as a single dedicated worker for each family and an emphasis of ‘transforming lives’, look, at first sight, very similar to the relational welfare approach advocated by Participle. Note the similarities with the text below from a document by Hilary Cottam:

The constant visits and delivery of messages do not constitute a conversation, and the families do not feel properly listened to or understood. Asked to change, the families have no lived experience of what this might feel like; and, worse still, they know that these commands are accompanied by the dead weight of expectation that they can’t change – ‘this family will never change’, it was explained to us.

But, on slightly closer inspection, some slippages between the two approaches begin to appear. On the next page of the relational welfare document, Cottam writes

Ella and another mother were asked to be part of a panel who interviewed and selected a team, from existing front-line workers in Swindon, who could work with one hundred families in similar circumstances. These mothers had no time for those they thought would be ‘soft’ with them, and even less for those they saw as somehow dehumanised representatives of the system. They chose professionals who confessed that they did not necessarily have the answers, but who convinced them they would stick with it …

These new teams have been allotted only a sliver of the former budget. What they can do is spend this money in any way the families decide – on their very first family outings in some cases, in others as a float to start very successful social enterprises. All initiatives are chosen and driven by the families themselves, which is key to transformation.

This approach contrasts sharply with the centralised approach adopted by the Troubled Families Programme. For all the talk of localism, it is a programme where the outcomes, decided in Westminster, are prescriptive, narrow and focused on short term behaviour change. Funding to support the work stays with central government until they are satisfied that, according to their criteria, ‘transformation’ has taken place. On top of this, Casey herself has, on occasion, used very different language to describe the approach adopted by the TFP:

What we know works is this thing called family intervention and what it does is basically get into the actual family, in their front room and if actually the kids aren’t in school it gets in there and says to the parents I’m gonna show you and explain to you exactly how to get your kids up and out every single day and then I’m gonna make you do it.  And if you don’t do it, there are gonna be consequences.

They walk into these families’ lives; they do not invite them to an office for an appointment with a letter. They walk through the front door and into the front room past two extraordinarily difficult and dangerous-looking dogs that they hope are locked in the kitchen. They have to sit on a settee, often in a pretty rough environment with some very aggressive people, and, with kids not in school and people all over the criminal justice system and so on, they have to get them from there to there.

On occasions she has publicly suggested that, even after listening to the families, she has decided that she didn’t necessarily believe what they were saying:

Some families think that their problems are often because of just one child when that is clearly not the case and that child is neither the only problem nor the starting point of where the problems in the family began. (DCLG 2012)

So, all this stuff about “I can’t control him” and those sorts of things just isn’t true. (my emphases)

It would appear, then, that there are two very different models of ‘listening’ to ‘troubled families’ or ‘families with multiple disadvantages’ and that those models have implications for how these families are talked about, represented and, ultimately, treated as human beings. Dan Silver of the Social Action Research Foundation has argued that co-production of policies and services is vital if we are to truly tackle poverty and disadvantage, suggesting that ‘we need to transform the very nature of public policy by locating technocratic and citizen knowledge on a more equal footing’. He goes on to say:

This requires a shift in the model of governance and public policy that currently exists, which privileges statistical data and economic performance management, towards a model that draws more upon the experiences of people living in poverty. 

Mark Peel, in a chapter called ‘Hope’ in The Lowest Rung (a book that shares the voices of people living in poverty in Australia) sums up the difference between these two approaches brilliantly:

The point is to listen to what they are saying. It won’t be easy, because it depends on getting close enough to hear words that aren’t about pain, suffering and heroic endurance but about hope and anger. It demands an approach based on working with people, not on them. It is the difference between what activist Pam MacShane called ‘the model of discernment at a distance’ and ‘empowering them, trusting them’. It is the difference between telling them what to do and asking them what needs to be done, in the belief that they know best. (my emphasis) (2003, p170).


DCLG (2012) Listening to Troubled Families, London: DCLG

Lawler, S. (2005) Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities, The Sociological Review 430-446

Peel, M. (2003) The lowest rung, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

This post was first published on the Relational Welfare blog on 11/10/2013