Troubled families figure ‘delight’ misses the real picture

The headline figure of 'troubled families' tells us little about the situation in local areas.

Jack Lofthouse is a researcher at IPPR

Eric Pickles yesterday announced that he was delighted at the progress of the government’s flagship social policy Troubled Families programme. At its halfway point, he noted, the scheme “is already helping half of our target of 120,000 troubled families”.

What’s more, the programme has already ‘turned around’ the lives of 22,000 such families across Britain.

The programme, which built upon the successes of the previous government’s Family Intervention Projects, aims to transform the lives of Britain’s most disadvantaged families, provides funding for local authorities – which they must match with money of their own – to improve the lives of some of Britain’s most ‘troubled’ families.

It is up to local areas to decide the type of services and interventions they develop and deliver under the programme, but they will only receive the full amount of government cash if they are able to demonstrate their success.

The problem is that the headline figures tell us very little about the situation in local areas.

Firstly, the much-touted 120,000 figure, through which funding is allocated to local areas, was calculated using entirely different criteria than the ones used by the current programme.

More fundamentally, the key problem is that the criteria for assessing whether or not a family can be said to have been ‘turned around’ are simplistic at best. Local authorities are paid on a per-family basis according to whether they achieve either a reduction in anti-social behaviour and truancy or entry into continuous employment.

Taken on their own, these metrics do nothing to reflect the complex nature of disadvantage: can we really say that a family with a history of violence and neglect, for example, has been ‘turned around’ if one parent has been in work for six months?

When the government makes a big noise about the success of its flagship programme in terms of such spurious metrics, it would be easy to write it off as a failure.

But look beyond the headline statistics and there is some suggestion that many local authorities are using the programme to redesign disjointed local systems that do little to address people’s complex needs, or to engage with them in a meaningful and personal way.

Councils like Manchester, who we spoke to as part of our Condition of Britain project, are using the Troubled Families cash to fast-forward their changes to engaging with disadvantage. They relish the additional resource and potential to innovate afforded through the programme, and have used it to further their project of coordinating local services around the needs of individuals and communities.

Indeed, there is a lot to commend in the programme. It is based upon a clear national priority, which kick-starts local coordination of services.

At the same time, there is a degree of flexibility offered, not only because councils can choose exactly how to achieve their targets, but also because they can set some of their own eligibility criteria,  allowing them to sharpen their focus on those who have greatest need and represent the greatest cost to the public purse.

Finally, the programme focuses on the important role of individual keyworkers. It is now time to explore the systems of accountability in the programme, and think about the role of the families themselves as the ultimate judges of their progress in the scheme. Recent research has also shown how there could also be much more work done to align the programme with the work of local community and third sector groups.

None of this is captured by headline figures on the number of families ‘turned around’. We will need to think more deeply about how best to evaluate what lasting change such programmes are driving – and to ensure that services work towards long term and sustainable outcomes for families who have been let down by the current disjointed approach.

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