One of the few winners in the recent spending review was the Troubled Families programme. After a feisty campaign by the Troubled Family Tsar Louise Casey - some of which spilled out into the media - an extra £200 million was made available. This comes on top of the £448 million already committed, made up of a combination of national and matched local spending. There is also a £200 million European Social Fund (ESF) funded programme targeted at roughly the same families.
I have referred before to some methodological questions about who exactly these families are and how they are to be identified (indeed many local authorities are apparently having difficulty identifying their quota of chaotic households), but leaving the figures aside, there is much in the programme which it is easy to support.
The goal of joining up services around the needs of the family is vital for a group of people who have often in the past had to deal with multiple agencies, some trying to punish, while others try to support. The focus on the bond between the family intervention worker and the family is also a good example of seeing public services as reciprocal relationships, not simply services to be delivered. And, knowing a bit about the kinds of chaos into which many of these families have drifted, I have no qualms about the programme's tough love approach.
So why a glorious failure?
As regular readers will know I am an advocate of 'clumsy solutions' which combine three core sources of social power. The Troubled Families programme relies at both a macro and micro level on a largely hierarchical model of change. Not only is the policy itself centralising, in that it requires local authorities to shift local priorities in order to match fund the national programme, but the model for helping families themselves is based on professional intervention to educate and guide them to better lives. Hierarchy is an important change lever and, if it is to be used, it is better that it be used well than badly. Which is why we shouldn't understate the programme's good elements. However, the model is unconvincing on another change driver - individualism - and silent on the third, social solidarity.
The early evaluations of troubled family-like interventions are generally good (albeit small scale) in terms of reducing various pathologies (drug and alcohol abuse, school absence, crime and anti-social behaviour), but the figures for family members gaining employment are much less impressive. A sluggish and unbalanced economy, which continues to fail to provide millions of people with what most of us would see as a living income, means that even when families have managed to break out of cycles of profound dysfunctionality they will continue to be acutely vulnerable to the kinds of life crises which often precipitated the decline into chaos in the first place.
As I heard a group of people in the RSA's West Kent recovery programme describing the other day, the journey away from chaos must also be a journey to the possibility of a reasonable life. There is an urgent need to connect the troubled families programme to employment services. This is exactly what the ESF programme could and should do, but progress has been hampered by infighting in Whitehall, the traditional contempt towards local government (which delivers the Troubled Families Programme) shown by the Department of Work and Pensions (which administers ESF) and a failure in councils to join up policy and connect providers.
Crucial to our West Kent recovery model is the engagement of service users in diagnosing their wider needs, and co-designing and delivering the services needed to move on. Supportive social networks of people further down the road of recovery and from the wider local community are also vital to sustaining progress. At present the Troubled Families methodology has little or nothing to say about the wider assets of families beyond their problems and immediate needs, nor does it seek explicitly to re-engage those families in wider social networks so that they have support around them to help through future crises or to open up new possibilities.
Tuning round the lives of troubled families is an important and commendable goal, but it is also very hard to achieve (something reflected in the fact that at present less than 2% of the target group have been helped to achieve even the relatively short term targets set by the Government). The existing model may well improve the form of central and local state intervention, but if it is to make a real sustained impact, it has to develop a much stronger story about the opportunities and social support which will enable a family that has been lifted out of chaos to stay there, and maybe even help other families in trouble.
Al Mathers, former RSA Director of Research and Learning, explores the importance of introducing reciprocity into the work of social change organisations like the RSA.
Tamsin Hanke Sash Scott
Super-nature was one of 10 commissions to feature in the 2022 global exploration research project, Collective Futures. Learn about the work and its outputs in this field note.