Dealing in secondhand ideas

Stephen Crossley
Thursday, 24 September 2015

Given the scarcely believable, near perfect ‘official’ success of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) – which I blogged about here – and allied to some hints from the government that they were considering how the same approach could be applied to different service areas and household types, it should come as no surprise that a leading think-tank has rode to the sound of the guns and published a report on just this topic.

The Institute for Public Policy and Research (IPPR) recently published Breaking Boundaries, a report setting out the case for a ‘Troubled Lives Programme’, based on the TFP but targeting individuals experiencing homelessness, substance misuse and/or offending. The government, in the 2015 budget, had already committed to exploring ways to reduce the alleged £4.3 billion cost of ‘troubled individuals’.

The successful Troubled Families Programme?

What is particularly striking about the report is that it takes the success of the TFP for granted and proposes extending the approach despite some serious concerns about its efficacy and before we know anything worth knowing about its reputed success.

The report acknowledges a number of areas of concern with the TFP, such as ‘issues surrounding sustainability and the way that success is measured’ and ‘government claims about the results and savings achieved by the programme are dubious’. It also notes that the figure of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ originated from research that was deliberately misrepresented by the government, although the authors ambiguously present this as research from ‘a report that defined disadvantage in very different, more structural terms than those used by the TFP’.

The report neglects to mention that no findings from the independent evaluation of the TFP have been published yet, and also glosses over the 'policy-based evidence’ which supports the model of ‘family intervention’ that the TFP is based on. No mention is made of the widespread belief amongst local authorities and practitioners that the ‘troubled’ label is considered stigmatising and unhelpful to local practice.

These significant concerns about, but not limited to, the sustainability of any success, what success actually is (and for who), and the misrepresentation of the evidence base for the existence of ‘troubled families’ would, one might think, be enough to strike a note of caution before advocating extending the approach to a wider group of vulnerable, disadvantaged individuals. In this instance, however, these issues are brushed aside as minor concerns merely to be aware of. Instead of reflecting on them, the report presses ahead undeterred and proposes a new programme ‘based on the Troubled Families model of centrally driven but locally led reform’. The IPPR webpage promoting the report refers to the TFP as ‘the successful Troubled Families Programme’.

Market-tested policy 'solutions'

Some people might be surprised, but we shouldn’t be. This is, by and large, what think-tanks and their employees do. Think-tanks do not exist to hold governments to account, they exist to furnish them with easy to digest, market-tested policy ‘solutions’.  They offer a veneer of independence and ‘evidence based’ credibility for policies which are palatable for politicians and governments. Where politicians once drew on civil service researchers, analysts and statisticians for policy advice and expertise, they now rely on self-styled ‘policy wonks’ and ‘intellectuals’ based in allegedly ‘independent’, yet cosily compliant think-tanks.

IPPR passed through what Loic Wacquant called the 'decontamination chamber' of government policy research when it was commissioned by the Coalition government to look at civil service reform, effectively securing the role of their preferred policy partner. One of the authors of the Breaking Boundaries report is currently on secondment to the Cabinet Office as the Head of Policy and Strategy. A member of the Troubled Families communication team in DCLG is thanked for their support in producing the report.

Secondhand ideas

Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, called the producers of such reports ‘lackey intellectuals’, ‘half-wise economists’ and ‘would-be scholars of the obvious’, whilst F. A. Hayek labelled them 'secondhand dealers in ideas'. Hayek argued that such 'intellectuals' wielded great power and suggested:

Even though their knowledge may be often superficial, and their intelligence limited, this does not alter the fact that it is their judgment which mainly determines the views on which society will act in the not too distant future. It is no exaggeration to say that once the more active part of the intellectuals have been converted to a set of beliefs, the process by which these become generally accepted is almost automatic and irresistible. They are the organs which modern society has developed for spreading knowledge and ideas, and it is their convictions and opinions which operate as the sieve through which all new conceptions must pass before they can reach the masses.

And so we have the ‘irresistible’ story of ‘troubled families’, where think-tanks, after opposition MPs, after political journalists, after media commentators after children’s charities line up to be cheerleaders for the TFP, often repeating the mantra of ‘success’ as originally told by government. They talk of the ‘public service transformation’ which is taking place under the TFP or, in the lexicon of the Breaking Boundaries report, the need for ‘systems change’, ‘local service integration’, ‘service user leadership’ and new partnerships to ‘pool funding and deliver joint solutions’.

The need for fundamental change

These vacuous phrases and statements, all focused on innovative local ‘solutions’ to age old problems, mask the real heart – the structural and material deprivation and disadvantage – of the complex and damaging circumstances that many people in this country experience, and which has been increased as a result of political and economic decisions in recent years.

The systems that require most fundamental change in the UK are a tax system that allows in excess of £30 billion of tax to go unpaid each year, a labour market that produces an abundance of poor, low-paid precarious jobs and precious few ‘careers’, and a system of social security which encourages non-take up of benefits, labels recipients as scroungers and fraudsters, and is increasingly incapable of providing many people with an adequate, let alone comfortable, standard of living. Yet these messages would be unpalatable for the government to hear. They therefore do not feature in the report, despite one sentence in Breaking Boundaries noting that of all the ‘key causal factors that increase the risk of multiple needs’ poverty is ‘overwhelmingly the most important’.

At best, then, the report tells us nothing new. At worst, with all its seductive talk of ‘locally led reform’ and ‘systems change’, it provides disingenuous cover for the government to continue with its unnecessary austerity measures which target precisely the people that Breaking Boundaries purports to want to help.