The trouble with Troubled Families

by northumberlandia

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.