Despite its public failure, the Troubled Families scheme is being expanded, and shows services can be commodified, argues Michael Lambert
By Michael Lambert
The ‘suppressed’ evaluation of the troubled Troubled Families Programme (TFP) has finally been released. It does not make good reading or publicity for the government.
Claims by former Prime Minister David Cameron of 99% success rates for the TFP have finally been laid to rest. Payment-by-results did not get results.
The evaluation report, by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, says that ‘the key issue’ to emerge from the first phase of the TFP is ‘the lack of evidence that it has had an impact on the outcomes that it seeks to affect for families.’In other words: the TFP has been an enormous waste of money with ‘no discernible impact.’ A white elephant of social policy.
Civil servant Jonathan Portes, one of the authors of the report, described the TFP as a ‘perfect case study’ of ‘manipulation and misrepresentation of statistics by politicians and civil servants. He, like many others, lays blame at the feet of the Director General, Louise Casey. Dame Louise Casey, who said in an interview with Civil Service World about the TFP that ‘the stakes are very high’ and ‘I can’t fail – we can’t fail.’
The TFP has failed.
Worse still, as Northumbria University researcher Stephen Crossley has argued, the TFP has been enormously expanded to a second phase without any assessment of the first. The number of families has increased from 120,000 to 400,000. The government funds have increased from £448m to over £900m. The criteria for payment-by-results have grown from four to six. They are even more elastic.
Even worse still, the government have exported the ‘successful’ ‘troubled families’ model to other policy areas. Stephen Crossley has described this as ‘dealing in secondhand ideas.’
Outside the exercise in mass statistical manipulation are the worrying and long-term consequences for statutory services by the changes wrought by the TFP.
Louise Casey, in her 2012 report Listening to Troubled Families saw the TFP as an opportunity to ‘get underneath the skin’ of services as much as the ‘troubled families.’ Casey has accused social workers of ‘colluding’ with families and providing excuses, not results. What ‘troubled families’ needed, was ‘tough love’ from tough services.
Creative social accountancy
From its inception, the TFP was much more than an exercise in creative social accountancy. It was about changing services, and the responsibilities and operation of the state.
The TFP took many of its cues from New Labour’s Family Intervention Projects (FIPs). Particularly, the model of intensive intervention and the keyworker, which was at the heart of the TFP. Certainly, researchers studying local programmes have found evidence of these positive outcomes.
Where successes have occurred, these have largely been in spite of, not because of the TFP. The evidence of many service organisations and local authorities to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) inquiry into the TFP have provided dozens of instances of the positive elements of support. The onus of the TFP on achieving results and leaving families adrift, as ‘turned around’ counteracts the positive parts which social workers, services and practitioners seek to retain.
How services can be commodified
However, as the Channel 4 Dispatches programme on the TFP showed, large numbers of families were ‘turned around’ and claimed for by local authorities without ever seeing a keyworker. There is a chasm between the rhetoric and reality of the TFP.
The TFP claims to encourage service and practitioner autonomy, but it does not. The payment-by-results framework forms part of a wider pattern of financialisation of social services. If results can be qualified and then quantified, then services can become commodified. If a ‘troubled family’ is classified as such for meeting two out of four criteria, and can be shown to have improved – regardless of intervention – then social services as a function can be sold to the lowest bidder.
Far from increasing professional autonomy, social work expertise and skill, as the TFP claims, the payment-by-results framework significantly reduces the power of the profession against the state. Generations of history and professionalization are being eroded. The development and legitimacy of the skills of social work are being supported in words by the government, but challenged by actions.
Social work reforms
Not uncoincidentally, the government has also been in the news this week about plans to reform social work. The bill proposes to allow local authorities to opt out of statutory requirements for child protection. The condition of opting out of these laws is that authorities achieve the same results, but by ‘innovative’ of new methods. Professor Ray Jones has repeatedly stressed his concerns about this issue.
The ‘success’ of the payment-by-results of the TFP has allowed it to be constructed as a model and readily exported to other policy areas. Despite the best efforts of workers on the ground, the TFP has been an emphatic failure and an exercise in manipulation. The failure of the policy should provide an opportunity and a moment to reflect on why it was sold as a failure, and why politicians and civil servants should learn lessons about the financialisation of social services.
Michael Lambert is a professional tutor at Liverpool Hope University