Social workers as ‘bounty hunters’?

lee majors

Go with me on this one….

A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in a workshop on Troubled Families at the SWAN conference held in Durham. The presentation that I used to generate discussions about the idea of ‘troubled families’ looked at the historical constructions of the ‘underclass’ thesis but, given the audience, it also looked at the implications for policy and practice. I shared an idea that I have been thinking about for a while and which I want to elaborate on a little bit more here – the idea that social or, as they’re increasingly referred to, ‘family’ workers, as imagined by the ‘troubled families’ narrative, are akin to and could conceivably operate as state sanctioned ‘bounty hunters’ in the not too distant future. This will probably be a bit messy and might appear to be a slightly flippant way of looking at this issue, but I think there’s enough to go on and the metaphor can be seen as an example of what Loic Wacquant has called the ‘remasculinization of the state’ (p201). So here goes…

In the current Troubled Families Programme, local authorities and their partners are required to go looking for troubled families – we know that the indicative number of ‘troubled families’ provided by DCLG that authorities should be working with is far larger in most cases than the number of families in each area that meet all three national criteria. So local authorities are required to develop their own criteria and then go looking for families that meet these criteria. There is, effectively, a hunt for troubled families going on, with a looming deadline focusing the minds of workers as they trawl through data trying to make a match or ‘find a lead’.

midnight run

Once a ‘troubled family’ is ‘identified’ a single worker is supposed to be allocated to that family. Remember the mantra ‘One family. One plan.One worker’. An attachment fee is then paid to the local authority – with the implication being that the worker will stick to the family and won’t, figuratively speaking of course, leave their side. This chimes with the ‘persistent’, ‘challenging’, ‘assertive’ approach that is required of workers. The Payment By Results mechanism thus effectively operates as a bonus for ‘turning round’ a family – very similar to the bounty paid when a ‘wanted’ man (sic) is ‘brought in’ by a bounty hunter.

If, as Louise Casey argues that “All of what we do turns on something very simple: the relationship between the worker and the family” then the importance of institutional structures and partnerships fades into the background. If one worker, with brilliant personal skills can bring about change in the most troubled and chaotic families in our society, who needs a complex bureaucratic institutional framework to support their work? Just as the source of the ‘problem’ is individualised or, at its most expansive level, familialised, with wider potential determinants being roundly ignored, so the solution is presented as being within the gift of an exceptional individual rather than changes to structural and societal factors.

So, whilst the PBR process currently goes through local authorities and the money is paid to the institution, it is not inconceivable, given recent developments, that family workers could be paid directly depending on the results that they achieve. The Department for Education recently issued a consultation on the outsourcing of children’s services – potentially removing local authorities from the equation (a similar thing also appears to be on the cards for probation officers) and the same government department has (re)introduced performance related pay for teachers – so a precedent has been set for payment by results (or performance) to street-level employees of the state and there is also a direction of travel which will see the delivery of children’s services ‘opened up’ to market forces and increased competition, potentially leading to a ‘need’ for a ‘more flexible workforce’. Casey has also previously stated that PBR ‘makes the transaction between ourselves and what we are trying to do with the family clear’ with a real ‘simplicity’ (emphasis added). What would make the transaction clearer and simpler and, dare I say it, ‘leaner’ and more efficient, is to contract directly with an individual or a private organisation.  Stan Cohen has also argued that in Visions of Social Control that, in instances similar to the one being discussed, state power can be maintained and even extended even whilst the symbolic and simulated withdrawal of the state is taking place (p109). This also links to Wacquants arguments around a recrafting of the state under neoliberalism, as opposed to a shrinking of it.

If this direction is continued, there would be nothing to stop ‘family workers’ going independent (in fact it might be necessary in some areas) and potentially working for whichever agency was willing to pay them to work with the ‘most troublesome’ families. The ‘best’ workers (identified as those with the highest ‘success’ rate in ‘turning round’ a family’) would be able to charge the highest fees. The removal of a state infrastructure also works to prevent the issue of critical or subversive practice what Lemert has called ‘industrial deviance’ – the situation where employees work ‘in and against the state’. It also reflects recent initiatives which have sought to re-brand social work as a cool, hip, masculine career choice for ‘elite’ individuals. Note the gritty, urban images (hoodies, sharp haircuts, concrete urban settings) used to seduce Russell Group students into a life on the ‘Frontline’. No images highlighting administrative or assessment related procedures or old, temperamental computer equipment were used…..

Of course, it would be churlish to suggest that the ‘social’ has no role to play in transforming families lives in this brave new world. As this thought provoking blog post shows, agents of the state who wanted to work as part of a team could set up their own social enterprise, where they could operate as, well, ‘soldiers of (mis)fortune’:

If you have a problem (family), if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the SW-Team…..


I did say it might get messy…. I may well be barking up the wrong tree here or barking up a very old tree or, to really push it, barking where there just aren’t any trees at all. But, I’d be interested to hear people’s views and it does reflect age old concerns about the balance between the ‘care or control’ requirements/expectations of social workers. I also hope(genuinely) that what some may perceive as flippancy in this post might encourage others to consider viewing things slightly differently or reassure those who already do…..