Last week, we were not only treated to the good news that the government’s Troubled Families programme was doing splendidly, but also a cuddly (by her standards) interview with its Tsarina, Louise Casey, in which she informed us that what was missing in the state’s engagement with people ‘was love’. Bless.
Being the horrible, nasty cynic I am, my response to this let-trumpets-sound burst of optimism was not to throw roses into the air with joy, but to wonder what nasty was lurking in the woodshed. Yesterday we found out.
The National Audit Office has released its report into the TF programme, and it appears there are potentially serious underlying structural problems.
The problems thus far have been of definition (the criteria for a family’s inclusion have been shifted several times), of scope (the 120,000 figure has been deployed by politicians as shorthand for ‘social ills du jour’ to exhaustion), and of structure. For an acute examination of the first two issues, I direct you here: http://niesr.ac.uk/blog/government-continues-abuse-data-troubled-families#.Up3_cCcqtjk .
Looking ahead, it is in the structure and funding that the potential pitfalls lie, as evidenced in the NAO report:
The Departments designed the two programmes as separate initiatives, without joint governance or programme structures, which has led to poor integration of the two programmes. (…) there were separate assessments of need and separate business cases and the programmes launched within four months of each other without any clear data to show which programme was best suited to addressing which issue. The Departments sought to coordinate their different efforts through extensive contact, meetings, a later agreement and additional resources. Furthermore, the Troubled Families Programme was only funded to assist families who were not being catered for through existing provision and included an incentive designed to link the programmes together. However, the existence of two separate programmes focused on one issue caused confusion, and providers have told us that it contributed to the low number of referrals to the Department for Work & Pensions’ programme which has in turn impacted on the programme’s performance. (Full report here: http://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/10254-001-Troubled-families-Book.pdf).
The structural issue reeks of a initiative formulated on-the-hoof, reinforced by its being one of the government’s major policy responses to riots in the summer of 2011. Rather than a cross-departmental team being convened first to draw up a unitary programme, each department was allowed to draw up parallel plans. The DWP & DCLG have different funding streams, different success criteria, different partners in delivery, different commencement dates, even different names for what is being presented to the public as a single programme.
The funding is, frankly, a muddle. The central government allocation comes from the budgets of six different departments. The DCLG ‘expects’ Local Authorities to find £600 million in cash, services or kind at a time of budget cuts. From where will these resources be diverted and at what cost? The DWP’s share is funded by the European Social Fund, which has created problems around procurement as the ESF funding regulations are very tight. The DWP is operating a purely ‘payment by results’ model, the DCLG pays providers when a family is attached to the programme, with a further payment when they have succeeded.
This PBR model arguably creates perverse incentives for each department and for their providers. It is worth noting that TF will only pay for engagement with 120,000 families across the country, regardless of how many are eventually identified -which creates the temptation to cherry-pick easier cases.
The DCLG are doing better against their targets than the DWP (which to be fair, has a target which is directly influenced by the wider economy). This notwithstanding, there are huge variations in attachments and performance across local authorities and providers (the range is between 270% of target and -67%). and they are well behind LAs own internal benchmarks. Fewer than half have reached the target they agreed with the DCLG.
The DWP focuses on employment and employment alone. However employment is also one of the DCLG’s success criteria for helping families with multiple problems. Should a family member find employment or attain three employment-related ‘progress measures’ (not clearly defined, and identified as not cost-effective in other contexts ie the Work Programme), it will be counted as a TF positive outcome, whether or not their other issues have been addressed, simply because they have met the DWP’s criterion for success. It should be noted that as of now, the DWP has only reached 4% of its target, which strongly suggests they will either not reach it by May 2015, or will have to resort to pointing at the ‘progress measures’ to demonstrate success. Conversely, where the local employment market is sluggish, the employment measure could either be neglected, transmuted into the aforementioned ‘progress measures’ or effectively ditched in favour of addressing ‘softer’ aspects, such as school attendance, or maintaining a tenancy.
These ‘softer’ aspects are the stuff of life, a good life, the kind of life many of us take for granted. But a good life needs resources. Cash, bloody money. The argument goes that these families are costing the state a fortune. But very little of that money goes anywhere near the actual people involved. It goes to landlords, to contractors, from one service to another, to the costs of court proceedings. It flies over the heads of the people on whom it allegedly spent.
People, lest we forget, who are now living in a country where the Red Cross now feels they should be involved, such is the nutritional crisis amongst the poor, including those in work. Where teachers are now reporting that they are having to buy shoes for children, as their parents simply cannot afford to. Where SEN provision in schools is falling away. Where people are losing their tenancies for the sin of not being able to find a smaller home to move to, because those smaller homes do not exist. Where people are being taken to court for not paying their ‘share’ of council tax, in the face of the services it pays for being cut to ribbons. Where legal aid is being cut. Where women’s refuges are closing due lack of funds. Where people are forced to work for free, or are on zero hours contracts. All these things affect the ability of people to be ‘good citizens’.
I keep thinking that however well-evidenced (which TF isn’t) or well intentioned, programmes like Troubled Families are things done to the poor (because regardless of the criteria, it is the poor who will overwhelmingly be its clients), rather than for or with them. This is not to say individual professionals and teams will not help people by walking alongside them: they always have, and always will regardless of what new wheeze a government comes up with. TF ignores the wider socio-economic context in which those professionals operate entirely: cuts to Mental Health services, to youth services, the appalling state of rehabilitation services, all of which will affects its clients by its own criteria, are just not there in its proposed solutions.
Added to this is the sheer economic stupidity of not giving money with the choices it confers, to the poor, rather than poking at the bad decisions poverty can engender. Poor people spend money (the jargon for this is they have a higher marginal propensity to consume), the rich don’t; they tie theirs up in property, equities, in increasingly complicated financial instruments whose sole purpose is to make them more money. Which they won’t spend. Money is being sucked up the distribution away from those it would actually help, as an act of policy every bit as deliberate as the Troubled Families programme.
Louise Casey has repeatedly said, as have many politicians and wonks, that simply spending on these families doesn’t work; politically, giving them more money is an absolute non-starter. In her interview this weekend she compared herself to Camila Batmanghelidjh. It is worth noting that Kids Company, which undoubtedly succeeds in engaging with hard-to-reach children and families has had its funding shredded under this government despite Camila Batmanghelidjh being drafted in to support the ‘Big Society’. So what counts as a success worth funding if not Kids Co.- in fact why not just roll Kids Co out across the country?
Ultimately, the actual success criterion for the politicians is given away by the deadline. 31 May 2015, which by purest coincidence is an election year. If the whole thing is a howling success by election day, this government will take the credit. If it isn’t, they will blame the wider climate this programme so roundly ignores, because that’s what politicians do. For its part, the NAO makes the following pointed remark: ‘We would expect the Departments to reflect on the experience of the current programmes in designing new programmes after 2015.’ Whatever happens, I very much suspect that the poor and the troubled will still be with us, because their existence suits some people very well.