More on ‘troubled families’

‘A tale of Cameron’s prejudice and hubris’ was how Red Brick described this a couple of days ago, and subsequent events have shown Steve’s words to be correct even if the picture is a little more complicated than first appeared. If the official evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme wasn’t damning enough, one of the authors – Jonathan Portes of the NIESR – tore into the programme this week in his Not the Treasury View blog. He says the programme is ‘a perfect case study of how the manipulation and misrepresentation of statistics by politicians and civil servants – from the Prime Minister downwards – led directly to bad policy’.

Portes’ problem isn’t with the fact that the TFP tried to do something but heroically failed. As he says, if government intervention is always so tame as to be successful we’ll never try anything ambitious and learn from the mistakes. No, what he’s concerned about is the duplicity of politicians in never admitting that such a programme might not be the best thing since sliced bread: no nuance was allowed the cloud the impression that, indeed, 120,000 families had had their lives changed massively and permanently. This is how Portes summarises it:

‘… the key point here – and the indictment of politicians and civil servants – is not that the TFP didn’t achieve what it set out to do. That’s unfortunate of course… [but] If new programmes never failed to deliver the promised results, that would show government was not taking enough risks. That is should not be the issue. Indeed, many social policy experts thought that the basic principles underlying the programme made a lot of sense.   The point is that it was the government’s deliberate misrepresentation of the data and statistics that led to badly formulated targets, which in turn translated into a funding model that could have been designed to waste money.’

He blames not only government ministers for this, but also Louise Casey who runs the programme. He quotes her as saying, “If No 10 says bloody ‘evidence-based policy’ to me one more time, I’ll deck them”.

As it happens, Casey had her chance to get back at Portes on Wednesday when she and two other civil servants were grilled by the Public Accounts Committee. Listening to the proceedings gives an interesting glimpse of central government policy-making. Casey says Portes has misrepresented the evidence. Her argument seems to be that while they have piles of data that show (for example) the families’ school attendance is better and they’re resulting in fewer police call-outs, much of this doesn’t show up in the part of the evaluation on which Portes bases his case. However, it’s a little difficult for even the forceful Dame Louise to sound convincing when the key finding of the department’s published report is ‘the lack of evidence that [the scheme] has had an impact on the outcomes that it seeks to affect for families’.

Listening to the PAC discussion suggests an important reason why this happened. One of the original models was the Dundee Families Project, and indeed someone from it assisted the DCLG team. But that project invested £10,000 per family over a long term, at a time when local services were, if anything, growing rather than being cut. The Troubled Families Programme spent £4,000 per family and it coincided with other services being decimated. Phase 2 of the project, we are told, will have to manage on less than £2,000 per family.

Behind the hype there are real issues here and I guess Louise Casey knows this as well as anyone: where families do have multiple problems, they are going to need a range of co-ordinated interventions stretching over a significant period of time. Aiming to ‘turn them round’ in a couple of years or less can easily be a facile exercise. Whether wittingly or otherwise, the TFP has colluded with ministers (and here Eric Pickles must be identified, along with David Cameron) who wanted to apply a relatively cheap sticking plaster to a problem while continuing to disable the services like Surestart, Schools for the Future and, of course, genuinely affordable rented housing, that are really essential in tackling these issues. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for civil servants to point this out in a hostile political environment. You can understand them – and desperate local authorities – clutching at straws. But this shouldn’t let government off the hook, and that’s why Jonathan Portes’ views, however bluntly expressed, are very important.

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