The Troubled Families Programme shows the way forward for public services

I was interest to read about the British Government’s Troubled Families Programme (TFP) in last week’s Economist. Now I don’t find the Economist particularly reliable on British social policy – their coverage of education has shaken my faith in the paper, with its uncritical adoption of rightwing wonkery. So I thought I had better get an alternative view. That proved a bit more difficult than I imagined, since the programme attracts little public attention. I did come across one piece in the Guardian, though, from last November. This turned out not to have a great deal to say. Nevertheless, I think that the TFP is an exciting idea that is a potential model for future social policy – unlike so many of the government’s other ideas.

The TFP was set up by the Coalition government in 2011 in response to the riots that year, which set off one of our ruling elite’s bouts of moral panic about the lower orders. The programme targets the families that are creating the most problems for public services, initially 120,000, and appoints a key worker, who then works with the family to put them on the path to solving their problems. The key workers bring in other public services as required. The programme was extended to 400,000 families in 2014.

David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has lent his personal imprimatur to the programme, and claimed a virtually 100% success in “turning around” these families. This claim is examined by the Guardian, which unsurprisingly finds it wanting. Success is judged by rather unconvincing criteria, and includes families knocked off the list because they were found to not to be as “troubled” as first thought. Perhaps it is too early to judge the programme, as one of the Guardian’s contacts suggests, but that looks equally dubious. To me the programme is simply commonsense. No doubt there are many ways in which it can be improved, but we are better off seeing this as a glass half full than half empty – because its approach runs counter to so much of current government practice.

The problem with the normal approach to public services is that it compartmentalises them: social work, probation, police, mental health, housing, employment and so on. But the most persistent problems involve people that have multiple problems that feed off each other. Mental health, joblessness, housing, drug abuse, criminality is a common trail of destruction, for example. This leads to the classic paradox of public services (and many other dysfunctional organisations), where everybody is working hard and doing their job well, but the overall result is underperformance and failure – and constant demand for more “resources” as social policy types like to call taxpayer funding. Solving the complex problems that lie at the heart of so much demand for public services requires looking at the person at the heart of it and supplying leadership. This tackles two of the most difficult aspects at once – the lack of confidence or chaotic nature of the people involved, and the need to coordinate and access a multiplicity of services. That is what the TFP does. It intermediates the public services with a human professional who can adapt their actions to the circumstances – and provide personal coaching. That key worker may be the first person in public service that the troubled individuals have talked to who is interested in them as people, rather than through the narrow scope of their role.

This is interesting, because it takes public services in the opposite direction to most attempts to “reform” them, since Labour’s Tony Blair suggested that public services should learn from the private sector in the late 1990s. What followed were many attempts to make services more streamlined, and to intermediate them through dumbed down interfaces with low-skilled staff and workflow systems, which are quite unable to deal with human complexity. It turns out that the private sector gets by by avoiding the difficult cases and telling them to go somewhere else.  It also doesn’t like actually soving people’s problems – it want them to keep coming back for more. There is still much that the public sector can learn from the private – but not nearly as much as Mr Blair and his Conservative emulators think. The public sector needs operating models of its own – and the key worker idea is one. There is another around building self-helping communities, but that’s a story for another day.

And, to be fair, criticism of the TFP is limited. A lot is directed against Mr Cameron’s rhetoric, which talks about addressing the “twisted moral code” of troubled families. In fact it turns out that most troubled families do not engage in crime. But this is about creating political cover for the idea to readers of the right wing press – a bit like covering community cohesion initiatives with the label “British Values”. Nonsense, perhaps, but politicians of the left should learn from it in order to broaden public support for their ideas.

Then there is the old leftist trope that such policies address the symptoms of trouble, and not the root causes, such as inequality, injustice and many other of the abstract nouns beloved of the left. But this line of criticism is simply designed to provide cover for mediocre public services. It underestimates what humans are capable of given the right motivation and support.

In our world of polarised politics, this sort of criticism from the left is as close to praise as a Tory government will get. In fact there are two more substantive criticisms. The first is the rather obvious one: the government is pulling in opposite directions. The TFP may be a good idea, but it needs access to decent public services to do its job, and these are being run down  – especially local council social services and mental health facilities, both of which are critical in this context.

The second criticism is that TFP is subject to the government’s payment by results (PBR) policy, another signature idea from Mr Cameron. This means that the work is farmed out to non-government agencies, who are paid bonuses depending on their success rates. Using outside agencies is not necessarily a bad idea in itself, though anathema to the left. But PBR leads to two problems. First is that by subjecting the payments to risk, they will drive away many potential agencies, including smaller social enterprises, which are usually the most innovative. Instead they draw in a list of larger organisations, who tend to hollow out rather than add much value. They are able to do this because of the  second problem, which is that defining success criteria leads to arbitrary targets that can be gamed. It is the same regime of false incentives as the discredited target culture, beloved of Mr Cameron’s predecessor, Labour’s Gordon Brown.

In my mind this is the wrong way round. Key workers should be at the heart of the publicly managed service that commissions services from elsewhere: public, private or third sector, depending on how they meet client needs. This “care management” model has been very successful in social work, for example – although few councils now use it, with the pressure on short term costs leading to them to replace qualified staff with cheaper personnel with narrower remits. (Disclosure: my wife is one of the few remaining care managers, in adult social work).

But credit where it is due. Mr Cameron has hit on an idea that has real mileage: a people-centred approach to public services. This idea must be built on.