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