Musings from the North Country

Month: July, 2012

The trouble with Troubled Families

To really drive change, Ms Casey might usefully just copy the strategy and practices that were so efficient for the Stasi. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Letter to the Guardian

The government’s plans to ‘turn around the lives’ of ‘troubled families’ have led to an avalanche of comment. In the main, this has been a curious mix of silly hyperbole (such as the above) and hand-wringing platitudes – with Barnardo’s urging us ‘stop viewing troubled families as problems and start seeing them as people’, and the Children’s Society helpfully reminding us to ‘look much more broadly at the huge issues affecting this country’s children and their families’.  It is also an issue that echoes ancient ‘structure versus agency’ debates, and plays directly to the prejudices of both the Left and the Right – with some contributions from Guardian and Telegraph commentators exemplars of a sort of comfort zone, saloon bar journalism.

I should declare an interest here: I’ve been working on this agenda in my day job as a mid-level municipal functionary.  I too have scratched my head at some of the government’s (very loose) guidance, but have come to see it as a useful development that has the potential to do some good in a vexed area.

One of the main challenges facing any public sector reform is organizational inertia. ‘Turning round the oil tanker’ is very tough and sometimes you require a jolt to get things moving. This is why those commentators who have fixated on the almost certain inaccuracy of the government’s figure of 120,000 (the Staggers referred to ‘zombie stats’) miss the point completely. Patrick Butler points out that this was ‘more of a guess than an estimate … Not a good basis for policy.’ But this is a very complex area involving potentially thousands of mutually exclusive public sector datasets, with no current consensus on definitions, eligibility criteria and assessment.

Time is money, and navel gazing about data analysis often feels like an excuse to do nothing.  As too does the kneejerk reaction of Zoe Williams in the Guardian that this is about ‘the demonisation of the poor, with the aim, in the long run, of simply slicing off these families at the bottom of what we think of as “society’.’, and her rather naïve recommendation that ‘if you want to intervene with families, you do so in a voluntary, unstigmatising way, with a local hub providing many different services, from parenting advice to English lessons. You could call them Sure Start centres …’ (In any case, was anyone ever clear what children’s centres were actually for?) The metropolitan left’s squeamishness about ‘stigma’ reminds me of Norman Dennis’s concept of ‘social Micawberism’ (brought to my attention by the inestimable Michael Merrick) where troubled families ‘could be just as good as long as they were given enough money: [parenthood] is only a matter of cash’.

What we do know is that (a.) the public sector faces a funding crisis (finding the resources for ‘demand led’ services such as adults and children’s social care has the potential to bankrupt local authorities), and (b.) everyone at the chalk face knows that there is a hard core of families that absorb a disproportionate amount of time and effort – and that the collective efforts of the public sector aren’t making enough of an impact on their lives.

(It seems to me that the government’s ballpark figures were simply a reasonable accounting tool to ensure fair funding allocations to local authorities to get the wheels turning.  My experience is that this programme has been a useful lever to bring the various arms of the state together to figure out a better way of working, as well as a handy pot of cash to grease the wheels.)

In my view, the most obvious way ahead is a super ‘lead professional’ approach – i.e. work out who’s currently involved with the family, to then agree who should take the lead in working with them from that point on.  This would move us away from the current parade of disconnected professionals knocking at their door, towards building strong personal relationships and trust between a ‘keyworker’ and a family.  I confess this is technocratic – and reminds me of T. S Eliot ‘dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good’ – but if we are going to invest in family support services (which, lest we forget, are more remedial and ‘hands on’, than more observational and dispassionate child protection social work models) then we must ensure that it has a chance of working.

Where Cristina Odone completely misses the point is to argue that (in Louise Casey’s words) “getting on the sofa” with troubled families will be of little use to an unemployed alcoholic who’s been claiming disability benefits for years – or a single mother who has had three children by the time she’s 20, never held a job, and is now crippled with depression.” This would be to presume that this is happening already.  Getting staff onto sofas to intensively problem-solve and ‘grip’ the family’s problems has, hitherto at least, been tough to coordinate because of the complexity of the public service landscape.

Therefore, alongside ‘family contract’ approaches that can bring bring rigour and focus, we should also move towards the presumption of one key worker per family.  As David Lammy put it “in healthcare we each have a GP who acts as a gatekeeper to other specialists. The same ought to be true for the family.”

This is challenge to the Right as much as the Left, as David Blackburn wrote ‘the state must be made to work better’, echoing Francis Fukuyama who urges the right in America and Britain to emulate Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘strong-state conservatism’. Fukuyama: ‘It [the American government] needs to be smaller but also stronger and more effective. And this will not happen unless people see public service as a calling rather than as a despised occupation for people unable to make it in the private sector.’

So much for technocracy, what about the larger societal issues that have led us here? The decline of manufacturing, and the nuclear family are obvious places to start, but I think we must add the ‘nationalization of parenting’. Jennie Bristow argues persuasively that ‘instead of being the boss of their own homes, parents are situated as mediators in the relationship between the child and the state’, and told that their primary responsibility ‘is not to do right by their child but to show that they are doing the right thing according to the current parenting orthodoxy.’  This has a disorientating effect, and has drastically diminished parental authority, which, in her view, saw its culmination in the riots of 2011.

Bristow draws on the work of Christopher Lasch who charted the growing intrusion of social science “experts” undermining the family’s vital role as the moral and social cornerstone of society.  In effect outsourcing the socialization process to official regulation rather than organic structures. Even I am old enough to recall adults other than my own parents chastising me for my misbehavior, in a way that seems unthinkable now.  All this has contributed to an emasculation of community life and their ability of neighbourhoods to police themselves and confront troubled families in their own midst – families who become, in the words of Eric Pickles, ‘fluent in social work’, and as quick to explain away their misbehaviour as the gangs in West Side Story.

It is interesting that initiatives such as the Tyne Gateway project (which I had a small hand in setting up) and the Swindon LIFE programme (do watch the video) are trying to revive the capacity of communities to help themselves, and, the process, re-imagine how the state should work. Whether these projects are sustainable or not, it is clear that we need a new paradigm.  Watch this space.


The Catholic work ethic

I was very interested in Ed West’s recent blog post on the differing attitudes to money in Europe. West explores the cultural fault line between the Protestant North and Catholic South but argues that this dichotomy is too simplistic, and that other influences are just as important.

But let us stick with those religious differences. The caricature of the lazy Catholic south and the industrious Protestant north are enduring tropes in this country – given official endorsement from the sixteenth century onwards as a useful way to demonise the Catholic ‘other’ and unite the nascent United Kingdom.

As a Catholic myself, references to the ‘protestant work ethic’ have always irritated me – not least because I come from a long line of Stakhanovite Geordie pitmen who also happened to be Catholics (and, it always occurs to me, Polish builders and Philippino nurses are hardly known for their ‘slopey shoulders’ either – as they say on Tyneside).  This over-simplifies Weber’s thesis of course, but the currency of that phrase plays into ‘no-popery’ stereotypes, that are probably still widely (if subliminally) held in this country.

One of the reasons I love to travel in central Europe is that places like Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland and Northern Italy are a reminder that culturally Catholic regions are often, nay, usually, very prosperous places (the glories of Munich and Vienna are as far away economically from the fly-blown towns of Calabria and Extremadura as the Home Counties). Indeed, the point has been made that at least half of the German speaking people whose toil and entrepreneurialism led to the post-war Wirtschaftwunder were Catholics.  Similarly, Tobias Jones’s Dark Heart of Italy was a useful reminder of the surprising soberness of Italians, their work ethic, and their pre-eminence in many fields of manufacturing and engineering (not to mention great art, food and music).

A 2009 study by Davide Cantoni undermined Weber’s central claim that Protestantism gave cities and nations a competitive advantage, so as West himself wonders, what else can explain attitudes to debt, taxation and business? God knows – but I wouldn’t completely discount that idea that Catholic ideas of atonement for sin have not affected cultural attitudes to rule-bending, but we must locate these within national contexts. For example, Jones riffed interestingly in Dark Heart on whether Italian gamesmanship on the football field could be attributable to quirks of history, in particular the absence of an effective, consensual Italian polity that could uphold and enforce the rule of law. Consider too this fascinating study of the legacy of the (staunchly Catholic) Habsburg Empire and its bureaucracy (characterised by AJP Taylor as “fairly honest, quite hard-working, and generally high-minded”) and its positive lasting influence on social norms and attitudes towards corruption in Eastern Europe.

What are we left with then? Victorian schoolbooks would often include expositions of the ‘effect of climate on national character’ (which, in turn built on the thought of Hume, D’Argens and others) and I have a hunch that the sheer bloody heat of the Mediterranean probably does increase the temptation to cut corners (think of the stultifying effect of the Sicilian sun in Lampedusa’s The Leopard – “back on its throne like an absolute monarch”).  Yet Southern Europe still retains its appeal – in terms of lifestyle, cuisine, art and culture. For as much as I enjoy Jacques Brel, the Sint-Laurentiuskerk, and bière trappiste, who would swap Sicily for Belgium? Where, as Jonathan Meades so memorably put it:

“the death-cult of Catholicism collides with the mores and mentality of the North, so the death cult is not relived by sun or by brightness. On the contrary, its morbidity is emphasised by the persistent gloom.” 

Actually, on second thoughts, I see that you can get the Eurostar from Newcastle to Bruges these days…

History and Policy

This post has been recycled from a piece I wrote for the LSE Social Sciences Impact Blog in April 2011.

A background in history is almost the perfect grounding for a career in the public services. I would say this of course, but in my experience history graduates tend to be some of the most inquisitive and best informed out there. Their understanding of the broad contours of political history means that they instinctively ‘get’ policy debates, and can quickly apprehend where parties and politicians are coming from – a far from universal skill, even in the public sector.

What is more, all those years in the library, or the archive, or on their feet in the lecture hall, means that the best historians tend to be comfortable handling stacks of information, making a case and then presenting it convincingly.  As Martin Reeves, the Chief Executive of Coventry City Council, recently pointed out “research should be at the beating heart of local government”, and I firmly believe that analytical skills picked up in a History Department are eminently transferrable to most parts of the public sector.

I am a former doctoral student, who joined local government via the excellent National Graduate Development Programme. This had a significant academic element at Warwick Business School, but it was the practical experience of working at both strategic and operational levels early on in my career that was most useful to me. What I found most surprising, though, was not only the considerable latitude councils had to innovate (even under the dirigiste Audit Commission regime), but also how unsystematic such policy development could be. Google was invariably the first port of call, possibly followed by the IDeA site “to see what other people are doing”, but there was certainly no ongoing dialogue with the university sector, or even thinktanks, on what works.

Professor Judy Sebba has already pinpointed all that needs to be said about the limited influence UK universities currently have in policy development. In my experience, academic writing is often more about demonstrating cleverness, rather than clarity, and research still tends towards process, rather than outcome. This needs to change. Localism and the general power of competence, means even more freedom to innovate, and this presents a fantastic opportunity for universities to raise their game and get involved.

I have been encouraged by developments like the social innovation marketplace website Simpl, the IDeA’s own communities of practice site, and even the excellent History and Policy which have shown how social media and the web can connect policy makers with the solutions they crave. Universities have much to learn from these approaches.

And yet … having a grounding in history not only provides you with a useful reference bank to compare current challenges to (although my frequent practice of comparing any knotty problem to the famous ‘Schleswig Holstein question’ is probably wearing a bit thin) it can also give you a healthy scepticism about ‘the next big thing’. For example, the previous government’s laudable Child Poverty agenda was welcome, but I have been struck that many in this field seem to think we are the first generation to think about ‘poverty’ and that it is easily solvable with just a few more children’s centres (have they never heard of the Poor Law? Marx? Beveridge?).

This was brought firmly home to me at the centenary celebrations of South Shields Town Hall. As part of these events, we arranged for the distinguished historian (and Shields native) Professor Robert Colls to give a talk on what the town was like in 1910. Brimming with illuminating insights, he talked of the civic pride that had inspired the Town Hall’s construction, and the industrial innovation that created the town’s wealth. Without a whiff of nostalgia, he also explored the informal but effective networks of women who basically ran a town where most of the men were either underground, in the pub, or away at sea – indeed, he even compared them to the ‘committees of public safety’ in the French Revolution. It only occurred to me afterwards that our award winning Tyne Gateway Project is trying to recapture those networks and that sense of empowerment, by recruiting parents in poverty to help their own neighbours. Perhaps we should have started with the history books, instead of the policy briefings.