‘Bad policy.’ ‘No discernible impact on the key outcomes it was supposed to improve.’ ‘Deliberate misrepresentation of the data… a funding model that could have been designed to waste money’. ‘A waste of £1.3 billion’. ‘Failed’.
The media’s treatment of the troubled families programme, whose evaluation has recently been made public, cannot have cheered David Cameron in his last week as an MP. History does not look likely to be kind to his great social policy. We should, however, be grateful to the former prime minister for his quixotic attempt to do the right thing on a massive scale. Because in doing so he exposed the fallacy which has dominated social policy since 1945: the idea that the government is infinitely capable of solving social problems.
Our politicians seem to be finally realising that it can’t. As Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, put it last week, when she asked Dame Louise Casey, the civil servant in charge of the troubled families programme, ‘Don’t you think this is too big a challenge for government to get a grip on?’
Dame Louise is the doyenne of big challenges that central government has tried to get a grip on. Formerly the ‘Respect tsar’ tasked by Tony Blair to solve homelessness and crack down on yobbery, she was David Cameron’s favourite civil servant, too. You can see why. Sweary, informal and apparently irreverent of the niceties, her actual mission is to make everyone respectable, middle class and patriotic.
When riots engulfed English cities in the summer of 2011 and Mr Cameron decided to stop this happening again, Dame Louise Casey had a solution ready. In her Respect years she had overseen the extension of a small project founded in Dundee called Action for Children. The unique selling point of this project was that it carried sticks as well as carrots. A key worker, representing all parts of the public sector, would muscle into the home of a dysfunctional family and offer a choice: take my help or we’ll cut your benefits. In the wake of the riots, Mr Cameron authorised Dame Louise to extend this programme nationwide.
The first job was to assess the problem: how many families are we talking about? Officials found data from five years earlier which somehow enabled them to estimate that there were 120,000 families across England and Wales with ‘severe and complex needs’. They then specified exactly how many such families were to be found in each area: 2,385 in Manchester, 1,010 in Newcastle, etc. Local councils were told to identify these families and apply the Dundee method to them. For doing this they would be paid £4,000 a family, part of it ‘on results’, i.e. when the family reduced its unemployment, truancy, crime etc.
The flaws in the programme should have been obvious. Chris Cook, the BBC Newsnight journalist whose ferreting exposed them back in August, puts it this way: ‘Bluntly, local authorities could sign up families, wait for time to heal a problem or two and then claim the cash.’
Ultimately, the troubled families programme consisted of a sort of statistical syllogism. The government ended up paying for the data it said was there. Jonathan Portes, a researcher who was among the first to suggest the emperor had no clothes, identified the problem: ‘[Officials] told Manchester that it had precisely 2,385 troubled families, and that it was expected to find them and “turn them around”; in return, it would be paid £4,000 per family for doing so. Amazingly, Manchester did precisely that. Ditto Leeds. And Liverpool. And so on.’
And that, children, is how the troubled families programme achieved a 98.9 per cent success rate, an unprecedented achievement in the history of social policy. It is why David Cameron could fight the last election claiming to have ‘turned around’ almost 120,000 families. It is the classic case of ‘evidence-led policy-making’ becoming ‘policy-led evidence-making’.
For sure, the families made some progress. The problem is attributing this progress to the troubled families programme. In the absence of a counterfactual — a way of knowing what would have happened without it — we can’t be sure. The evaluation published last week stated: ‘We were unable to find consistent evidence that the troubled families programme had any significant or systematic impact.’ Which is not the same as saying there wasn’t any impact.
So we don’t know if it ‘worked’ because we can’t know. To blame the programme for not proving its impact is to make the same mistake as the programme’s designers.
This was the post-war idea, of which troubled families was the last gasp — indeed, the final fulfilment: the idea that a prime minister has it in his or her power to bind up a broken society, to heal families, to stop riots; and all in time for the next election.
The irony is that Mr Cameron was supposed to know better. More than any PM before him, he championed an alternative approach, based on self-helping communities, stronger families and a plurality of human-sized public services accountable to the people they serve. The Big Society was the real right answer to the riots. Uniformly implementing a single national programme across the country — and paying for data to prove it worked — wasn’t.
Theresa May has launched an industrial strategy to revive the economies of poor communities. We need a social strategy, too, to revive the communities themselves. But please, no more prime ministerial declarations of war on abstract social problems. No more national programmes to tackle complex issues, underpinned by bean-counting exercises which tell us nothing.
Instead, let’s build up the natural capacity of society — the families and religious groups, the local professionals and public services — to devolve power and responsibility directly to communities. Britain should have a system as various and responsive as the society it serves, where the power to fix a family in crisis rests with its neighbours, local professionals, and the family itself, not an office in Whitehall.
It’s a messier, longer, harder plan. It won’t yield a clear result — a ‘mission accomplished’ moment — for a politician to brandish as his or her personal achievement. But it’s the only plan that can work.