Troubled families: a programme without a rationale

The main evaluation report on the Troubled Families programme comes to a clearly negative verdict:  the scheme did not show any produce any significant or systematic improvement in the lives of the ‘troubled families’ it was supposed to help.

The two reports on the programme are difficult to decipher, however; it can be difficult to work out from them what the programme did, how it went about it or how the money was spent.  The basic questions that need to be asked about any programme are about its aims, its methods, implementation and outcomes.

Aims.  What were the aims of the programme?

David Cameron described the initial programme as dealing with ‘neighbours from hell’, but there was never any link established between the programme and the perceived problems.  The initial conceptualisation of ‘troubled’ families was confused, and the target numbers seemed to have been made up.  Claiming to ‘turn people’s lives around’ is pretty vague, and it would be difficult to tell what the effects were without taking a very long-term perspective – certainly longer than the period that this policy has been in operation.  There have been other very long-term studies  and they tend to suggest that the impact even of serious disadvantages tends to dissipate over time.

Methods.  What did the programme do?

The method is described in the evaluation synthesis report.  They were to include

  1.  A dedicated key worker
  2. Practical ‘hands-on’ support
  3.  A persistent, assertive and challenging approach
  4.  Considering the family as a whole;
  5. Common purpose and agreed action.

This is, more or less, a social work process.  It’s not a full professional example of social work with families, because that would have involved assessment, identification of needs and selection of appropriate responses, but it looks a lot like what many social workers would decide to do anyway.

Implementation.  What effect did the process of implementation have?

The report notes that this was happening at a time when resources for social work were being cut, so for the most part it looks as though what was happening for families in the programme was what might have been happening for years before.  If there was more information about specific interventions, I blinked and missed it.

What were the outcomes?

The evaluation focuses on five main factors:

  • benefit receipt
  • employment
  • educational participation
  • child welfare, tested by whether or not children were in care.
  • offending

There are obvious problems in treating benefit receipt as a sign of being ‘troubled’, and being in care is a long-term issue. If there were links to addiction or antisocial behaviour, they were not strong enough to be treated as criteria in their own right: addiction is not referred to and anti-social behaviour is a very minor category within ‘offending’.

There was no good reason in the first place to assume that the families being entered into the programme were ‘troubled’ or anti-social, and while there are good arguments for family social work in its own right, it’s far from clear how the methods were supposed to make a difference to the supposed problems.  Jonathan Portes, one of the report’s authors, has written that this is “the perfect case study of how the manipulation of statistics by politicians and civil servants led directly to bad policy and to the wasting of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.”

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