The government’s ‘troubled families’ initiative has great potential, but many practical problems must be addressed – not least how we account for the improvements made
Yesterday’s re-launch of the government’s policy to tackle the challenges of so called ‘troubled families’ is to be welcomed – in spite of the dispute over the government’s statistics and some of the more colourful rhetoric that accompanied the announcement.
This is primarily because, if addressed well, such a policy can lead to better lives for members of these families, safer communities and long-term financial savings. Win, win, win!
The government is right to put local government in the lead for implementing this policy but of course, on their own, local authorities cannot deliver the programme and the necessary outcomes. I refer here to local government’s classic role of community leadership. To deliver on this new policy, local authorities will need to persuade a range of public agencies to contribute to and pool resources, and jointly focus on the challenge.
They will also need to work with and rely upon a range of voluntary and community groups – some formal and some informal, who have the access, expertise and understanding to reach out and work closely with these households and their neighbourhoods.
Above all, this programme can only work if the families themselves are helped and incentivised to change their behaviours and take greater control of their own lives. The programme will not succeed if the public sector simply hectors the families and fails to offer personalised support and advice.
Again it is important to not conflate several public policy goals; to look at the evidence including the Singh report on the summer ‘riots’ and the extensive research on poverty, social exclusion and the experiences of early adopters of projects to work with ‘troubled families’.
Equally, it will not succeed if any one public agency, including local authorities, tries to ‘control’ and fails to share, cede and pool resources and decision-making with others, both within and outside the public sector.
There are clear lessons to be drawn from the experiences in many places where local authorities and their partners have been working to support ‘troubled families”, from Total Place and Community Budgets. There are also lessons to be learnt from international experience too.
Some of these lessons include:
- · the need for clear and effective local leadership – ideally from the local authority politicians
- · professional and institutional jealousies and ‘egos’ must not be allowed to prevent progress, or hinder the pooling and sharing of resources
- · clear outcomes must be identified and agreed
- · the voluntary and community, faith and other local communities have a major role to play
- · experiments will be necessary and there has to be an appetite to take risks
- · the families themselves must be empowered and supported
- · ideally, a key worker should be appointed to co-ordinate the support for individual families – this will minimise the chances of dysfunctionality, with over twenty five individual professionals making their own disconnected contact with a household. This key contact could be from any one agency, a community group or indeed be a neighbour
- · a recognition that there are no easy answers, so turnaround will take time – intergenerational problems, including long term unemployment, will not be turned around quickly – so there is no merit in setting over-ambitious targets any more than in setting too gentle ones
- · there is a need to enable communities to build their own capacity
- · it is important to understand the pathways to outcomes so that the impact of different inputs can be traced and accounted for
- · if social investment or other forms of investment are to be deployed to fund intervention to be sure to understand the cash flows, to set realistic and practical payment mechanisms and rates of return – this may be by limiting these to some key measurable outcomes
- · if organisations are to be to contracted on a ‘payment by results’ basis it will be necessary to ensure that there are no perverse incentives on providers; that small and voluntary sector providers are not excluded; the process is not over complicated or over pro-longed
- · it will not be easy or practical to identify all the financial costs for each agency and in total associated with these families and the pursuit of the ‘last pound’ would be pointless
- · although there may be long-term savings, there will usually be a need for some initial expenditure – and this is likely to be much more than the £4k that the Government is making available for each family. Also, the savings may not accrue to the agency making the initial intervention so there has to be a new accounting arrangement
If expenditure by agency ‘A’ results in community benefits but the financial benefit accrues to agency ‘B’, then agency ‘A’ ought to be able to account for the benefit as well as the expenditure – but currently, this is not possible. The challenge is compounded, sometimes exponentially, where such benefits arise from a number of interventions by several agencies, and where they only materialise a number of years after the initial expenditure.
If there were one set of public sector accounts for a locality, this would be easier to resolve but, of course, every agency has its own budgets and accounts, as well as different accountabilities to local people and/or Whitehall. One way of addressing this challenge is for the public agencies – or at least the core ones -to establish a ‘special purpose vehicle’ into which monies are pooled and to which the benefits accrue.
I have no wish to sound overly negative, but I really do fear that unless some fundamental issues are addressed by government, as well as local agencies, the full potential of the “troubled family’ programme is unlikely ever to be realised. Specifically, there is a huge danger of this all ending up in that too commonly used public sector repository called the ‘Too Difficult’ box.
In terms of a solution, I suggest that ‘accountability’ is best addressed by recognising the democratic legitimacy and place-shaping role of local government and empowering it with the necessary authority to fulfil this leadership role. There will obviously be a need for local flexibility and the government has to ensure that all departments and agencies are willing and able to contribute with local flexibilities and choices. That said, there is a risk that some government policies are tending to lead to a fragmentation of local public services at the very time when the NHS, police and schools for example, have to be at the heart of this programme.
Key to the long term success of the policy will be employment – so economic growth will be essential if the programme is to have a chance; and there will need to be changes to the Work Programme to allow greater local flexibility, removing incentives on providers to avoid the ‘most difficult to place’ unemployed and provide the resources to address mental health, personal behaviours and skills. Work Programme providers will need to mandated to contribute to the programme.
Above all there has to be a recognition that this programme is at the heart of rebuilding communities and local economies. It is not about blaming or even seeking to help some households. It requires us to understand the causes and to address these causes and not only the symptoms holistically and comprehensively. The policy must fit the facts, needs and aspirations, rather than the latter being forced to fit policy
Yesterday’s announcement must be more than mere political rhetoric. This is now the moment for government to allow local authorities, their local partners and the local communities to have an opportunity and the ‘room for manoeuvre’ to make a dramatic and sustained difference for local people including some of the most marginalised in our divided society. This will require patience, innovation, focus, leadership – and above all trust in communities and families.