Troubled Families: well sold but morally compromised

Stephen Crossley
Thursday, 3 March 2016

On Monday, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies published the views of an anonymous social worker on the government’s Troubled Families Programme. The worker argued that pressure from the government, in the form of cuts to local services had ‘caused staff to act against their ethical and professional values’ and argued that ‘a programme which aims to help families with multiple disadvantages is actually subjecting them to coercion and harassment’. They also claimed that a large proportion of the successes claimed by the ‘new’ approach have been delivered by ‘mapping’ families progress with existing services.

Before anyone attempts to dismiss these arguments, it is worth noting that there is a substantial body of evidence that supports and extends the views expressed by the anonymous social worker. The concept of ‘street-level bureaucrats’, proposed by the American academic Michael Lipsky nearly 40 years ago, neatly encapsulates how frontline practitioners are the ‘ultimate policy makers’, often having to use their discretion to negotiate, resist or subvert ‘official’ policy in order to ‘make it work’ (or to give the appearance that it is working).

In 1980, a group of social workers in the UK published In and Against the State which highlighted how they often had to work against the state in attempting to support disadvantaged families, at a time when the, not unlike the present, Conservative government wanted to reduce spending on social security. Numerous studies of the Family Intervention Projects developed under New Labour, which provide the basis of the ‘troubled families’ approach, highlight how practitioners often rejected dominant national narratives about ‘problem families’ and instead attempted to consider wider social factors when working with families.

Turning to the Troubled Families Programme, The Guardian revealed last year that thousands of the families that had been ‘turned around’ under the Troubled Families Programme had, just as the social worker states, simply had their progress ‘mapped’ either by data-matching exercises or through work with existing services. Sue Bond-Taylor, a criminologist at Lincoln University, has written powerfully about how local attempts to ‘empower’ families can sometimes slip back into a ‘responsibilizing’ discourse under a powerful national narrative which locates the cause of families’ problems at their own front door. Some local authorities have even promoted the ‘harrassment’ of vulnerable families as ‘good practice’, as can be seen from the quote below, taken from a local authority Troubled Families newsletter:

'When mum was finding it hard to manage her mental health I would often have to leave a whole morning or afternoon to visit as it has sometimes taken over an hour of banging on the door to get in to the house. Persistence has got me in the door even on bad days.' (Male Keyworker – my emphasis)

My own research, for what it’s worth, (undertaken in three different local authorities in England and supplemented by analysis of local authority documents and numerous discussions with practitioners across the country) highlights, in some cases, a very similar picture to the one presented by the anonymous social worker. I should be clear that practitioners and managers views on the TFP very much represented a mixed bag, with some very supportive of the programme whilst others expressed reservations. The focus here, in demonstrating that the anonymous social worker views highlighted earlier are not easily dismissed, is on some of the more critical assessments of what the TFP requires of practitioners.

One manager told me that they felt ‘morally compromised’ by what was, for them a ‘flawed, but well-sold programme’. They highlighted how the Payment by Results (PbR) process allowed the government to claim family life had been ‘turned around’ if an adult found work, even if domestic violence was ongoing in the household. Another manager argued that the programme relied on ‘practitioner integrity’ to make it work and that ‘claiming for success’ was completely different to closing a family case. A practitioner highlighted how the PbR process led to box-ticking work:

'And a lot of the time, a lot of the time, we were ticking boxes because, right, especially with the worklessness.  If they’d met with a work person, they’d had a meeting with a work person, we ticked a box and we could claim payment by results.  It didn’t mean they’d got a job or they’d gone on to do anything.'

Many practitioners laughed off the idea that the TFP was ‘new’, pointing to the fact that children’s services practitioners had been urged to ‘Think Family’ in the later years of the New Labour governments. One observed that the major change was that, in the face of public sector cuts, instead of being able to refer families to some specialist services for support, the ‘key workers’ were now expected to deliver these services themselves. Others knew that the families were not ‘turned around’, claiming the idea was ‘ridiculous’ and would continue to be seen by different services for many years to come:

'I think that’s a load of bloody rubbish and I think it’s political rhetoric.  I think there are some families who we can make a difference to, usually at a lower level, usually if we get in early enough.  But by the time you come to the families that were initially targeted by the Government, erm, it’s chronic, it’s entrenched, it’s multi-generational.'

Ethical concerns were prominent, with practitioners feeling uncomfortable that family’s data was being shared without their knowledge or consent. Some people spoke of the pressure that was applied, by both DCLG and senior management within local authorities, to demonstrate ‘success’ with the programme:

‘I guess it was “Make this work. Make this work, get these families on board, let’s please the government. Come on, we’re getting this money, come on. Come on people, let’s get the families to the table”.'Significantly, a lot of practitioners sought to re-insert ‘poverty’ into ‘troubled families’ discussions. Louise Casey’s Listening to Troubled Families report does not mention the word ‘poverty’ once. And yet, some practitioners were unequivocal that this was the primary issue faced by the families they working with:

'yes, it is about poverty and a lot of young people don’t actually have a decent bed to sleep on.'

'There is absolutely no doubt that socio-economic deprivation characterises the majority of families that we work with.'

'I didn’t know poverty existed the way that it does until I walked into this job. Honestly, you know, people have nothing, you know.'

'Poverty. A lot of them [‘troubled families’] are trapped in a cycle of poverty. And I know politically, we’re not supposed to discuss things like that. But it’s poverty underlying everything, it really is …'

'If it’s poverty we’re dealing with, you call it poverty and you address it. You don’t call it troubled families. It’s families living in poverty, my opinion, a lot of the time.'

'Troubled Families aren’t families in trouble really, they’re families that are living in poverty. '

These concerns only scratch the surface. It isn’t possible to do justice to the criticisms of the programme that I’ve heard from practitioners in a single blog. The social worker who came forward to offer a frontline perspective on the programme is not an isolated case. Many more practitioners cross the country share similar views, as some of the comments on The Guardian story last year highlight. In my research, even those who were supportive of the aims of the programme attempted to distance themselves from the national government discourse around ‘troubled families’. Any successes attached to the TFP, therefore, appear to have been accrued in spite of the government programme, fixated as it is on short-term targets and stories of ‘perfection’, as much as because of it.

Stephen Crossley is a PhD student in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University. Prior to starting his PhD he worked in and around local government in youth work and community development roles for around 15 years. He has a forthcoming chapter published in Social Policy Review 28 on ‘The Troubled Families Programme: in, for and against the state?