Face the facts

You know things are going badly for the UK’s Tory-led coalition government when I start to stand up for them…

The recently announed “Troubled Families” programme has been savaged in the press and on the internet. Much of this criticism completely misses the point and has nothing much to say about how to make effective government policy.

One prominent critic is Tim Hartford. He used his Radio 4 show “More or Less” to (rightly) pointed out that the Prime Minister and Sectretary of State used dodgy stats when they announed the programme. In particular the press releases and statements from the government claimed that there are 120,000 families that cause nuisance to their neighbours and that they cost the taxpayer nine billion pounds per year.

These numbers do not stand up and I am not defending them.

Taking this criticism further Jonathan Portes (former Chief Economist at the Cabinet Office) says “this is a terrible way to make policy”, since the government is using arbitary numbers and targets.

I disagree with him. I think that this government policy is of limited importance in the grand scheme of things and that there are specific problems with it but these numbers matter very little to whether or not it will be effective policy.

Let me clarify.

I say it is of limited importance because it is concerned with a topic that impacts on a relatively small number of people. Compared to the mess the government has made of reforming the planning system, introducing mayors, the funding settlement for local government and affordable housing (all the responsibility of the Department of Communities and Local Government), this is small fry.

However, it is a fine but not perfect policy.

Lets look at it in more detail. It works like this;

Each Local Authority that signs up to the programme (all local authorities have done so, perhaps a sign that the programme is not that bad) will identify families (along with partners like the police and housing associations and using local disrection) that;

  • Are invovled in crime or anti-social behaviour
  • Have children that are either not in school or are missing lots of school
  • Are out of work

Apparently there has been some initial counting of these numbers but this is not in the public domain (this is not ideal).

Once identified these families will be given a support worker. This worker will co-ordinate all the different agencies that are working with this family (there can be lots including schools, social services, health, housing, police, benefits and so on and so on) and will help the family draw up an action plan to improve their situation. There may be some sanctions involved if the family reneges on some aspect of the plan (although this is still not crystal clear).

Each local authority will be given some money in advance to pay for the worker for each family and more if the family improves their sitatuation. For example, if the children start attending school, if there is a reduction in anti-social behaviour or if they find work.This is called ‘payment by results’.

Finally, there is going to be some form of evaluation of this project, although this will be designed with the local authorites not just by the government department.

My problems with the programme are many.

  • It is very paternalistic. Instead of having a social worker type come in it would be better to pay people that have been in a similar situation. Their advice will be better recieved and be more authentic.
  • It could be quite atomising and focus on problems within the family rather than looking to connect and mediate the familes and their neighbours and to build on the families skills and talents.
  • There is a strong possibility that many of the families will have severe mental health problems that need medical rather than social support.
  • The programme is not designed so that it strengthens civil society in the neighbourhood
  • The payment by results aspect might discourage innovation and mean smaller, specialist organizations cannot deliver the work

However, the fact that the government has summoned the 120,000 number out of thin air is the least of the problems.

It is clear that the local partners will identify the families that need support and that the criteria for identifing these families is linked to the desired outcomes and that there is an appropriate level of local flexibility.

Presumably critics would prefer the government to not embark on this policy just yet and instead to spend a further 6 months counting the exact number of families fall under the criteria.

If the government were to do this they would announce a programme that would be almost identical to the one they have announced, only they would have paid statisticians a tidy sum to do a study first.

Perhaps this is why the statisticians disapprove of how the government has announced and designed the programme?

Perhaps. But I think the real reason is that they are concerned with criticising the rhetoric of politicians more than the reality of government policy. This is a fine and sometimes amusing thing to do but ultimately tells us very little about how to create and deviler effective government policy.