Speaking truth to power: CSW interviews Troubled Families tsar Louise Casey

Written by Sarah Aston on 24 March 2015 in Interview
Interview

From the homeless and crime victims to the abused children of Rotherham, Louise Casey has spent her career fighting for society’s most vulnerable. Sarah Aston meets her. Photos by Tal Cohen

As one of Whitehall’s most outspoken civil servants, Louise Casey has always been vocal about the government’s responsibility to protect the vulnerable.

“I have an image, which I will carry forever, of a tiny blonde girl sitting outside McDonalds on The Strand late into the evening, begging. She might have been 16 – but she was awfully young – and she was a care leaver, and I just felt this extraordinary sense of anger that that was how she ended up,” Casey recalls of her time at the Rough Sleepers Unit, which she led between 1999 and 2003.

“Everybody was refusing to engage because the girl was making an ‘active choice’ to be there,” Casey remembers. “I was talking to people to try and get them to do something about it. She didn’t want to come in, and I just said to her: ‘Well, I’m not leaving you here.’”


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Having met the Labour government’s target of reducing rough sleepers by two-thirds by April 2002, Casey went on to head up the Anti-social Behaviour Unit. Then, in 2010, she was appointed as Whitehall’s first victims and witnesses commissioner, a role created following a critical report by victims’ champion Sara Payne, mother of murdered schoolgirl Sarah.

Currently the director general of the Troubled Families Programme – a £448m initiative that works with councils to tackle the underlying problems of 120,000 British families identified as “troubled” – Casey has worked solidly to ensure the programme hits target by May 2015. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she has also – at the behest of communities secretary Eric Pickles – spent the last six months conducting an in-depth investigation into Rotherham Council’s failure to address widespread child sexual exploitation in the community.

What drives her to take on some of the most challenging work in Whitehall?

“On a very personal level, I am motivated to try and do something about disadvantage, and that predates coming into the civil service,” Casey says.

“When I was much younger, I never thought that anything was too difficult to solve. A society is only as good as how it treats its most vulnerable. That has driven me throughout my entire life, and I have had the extraordinary privilege, and it is an extraordinary privilege, to have been paid by the taxpayer to do that for the last 16 years.”

Described by Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge as a “bloody good thing for the civil service”, Casey was awarded the PAC award at last year’s Civil Service Awards, making it a double whammy for the Troubled Families team, who also won the Policy Award.

Presenting Casey with her award, Hodge joked that while Casey has never managed not to swear during a select committee hearing, she “has support across the political system”.

Casey admits that her outspoken style has not always been popular, but then again, she isn’t trying to be popular. “If I had arrived in the Home Office and said: ‘I tell you what everyone, the solution to all of these yobs on the street is, actually, if you just spend millions of pounds and stick them into youth clubs, all your problems will be over,’ I’d have been hailed and loved by everybody! Instead, I said we need to do a crackdown on anti-social behaviour, because that’s actually the right thing to do.”

Unapologetic about her methods, Casey admits she often finds the typical Whitehall style of management challenging. “Sometimes people don’t like hearing that things aren’t good enough. So on the one hand they say: ‘Louise, come back and tell us what we need to do to do something better’ and then you find yourself with a permanent secretary – not a current one I might add – who says to you: ‘You’re just too difficult for us Louise, we don’t really want to hear it.’”

This response is frustrating for Casey, who says she always bases her recommendations on evidence, and isn’t trying to go out of her way to be ‘difficult’. “Uncomfortable truths are still true,” she adds.


Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth Casey has had to deliver has been her report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. After Alexis Jay’s independent inquiry estimated that, between 1997 and 2013, at least 1400 children in Rotherham had been abused, Casey was tasked by Eric Pickles to inspect the council and decide whether Rotherham was fit for purpose.

Since completing her report, she has made little effort to sugar-coat her findings. A few days after speaking to CSW, she told the Communities and Local Government Committee: “I didn’t expect the local authority to be in quite such a state of denial about the problem, and I also didn’t expect the authority to be in such difficult – frankly dire – circumstances as it turned out to be.”

Confronted with the scale of the council’s denial, Casey says the inspection ended up covering a much wider area than was originally anticipated. “It was clear to me from the outset that there was some odd dynamic at play in Rotherham that wasn’t 100% clear,” she tells CSW.

“We were asked to look at something that involved culture and political correctness and what we ended up doing was sort of an investigation, an inquiry rather than an inspection. What we did was try and get under the skin of what was happening – listen to people on the frontline and then work our way back up.”

Over a six-month period, Casey and her inspection team reviewed almost 7,000 documents and met over 200 people, including current and former members of staff, council members, victims and parents. 

“What was liberating was that people had to see us, and we could ask to see anybody and look at any document. If they didn’t [want to see us], we could infer something negative from that and that meant we got through a huge amount work and evidence in such a short period of time.”

Working through some of the most harrowing evidence imaginable, Casey says it was the knowledge that she would be giving victims a voice that got her through.

“I think as we moved into it, we realised that we were dealing with much grimmer and more difficult issues than we probably anticipated. But the thing about all of these things, honest to God, is, if you know that what you are trying to do is to help make something better, then frankly you can get through just about anything,” she says.

“As long as you can feel that there is hope, even when you are listening to a victim – that you know that because of something you may be doing, there might be a chance that that young woman will be heard in a way that she’s not been heard before, and that the system will change because of what she has said to you – then you can get the job done.”

An uncomfortable question that has emerged from the handling of child exploitation in Rotherham is whether Britain has allowed multiculturalism – a policy of promoting an acceptance of cultural diversity largely associated with New Labour – and “political correctness” to dominate political discourse. Some cultural commentators have warned that multiculturalism as a policy can actually hinder integration, by stereotyping large communities, while the question as to whether political correctness was to blame for Rotherham’s failure has continued to dominate recent headlines.

For Casey, it was just one of many problems within the council. As she says in her report: “The Council’s culture is unhealthy: bullying, sexism, suppression and misplaced ‘political correctness’ have cemented its failures”. A key lesson from Rotherham, she insists, is to encourage open discussion of difficult topics.

“What Rotherham says to me is: because it’s difficult, that means you should look at it more, not less,” she says. “Anything that is difficult, anything that is uncomfortable, needs double the attention, not less. Yet our intuitive response is to give it less.”


Casey’s willingness to engage in difficult discussions has also been key in her leadership of the Troubled Families Programme – a scheme she describes as “highly successful”. It is evident from her body language and the way she talks about it that she gains deep satisfaction from her work in this area.

“Last month, we announced that well over 100,000 troubled families had been turned around by February, with three months left to run. That’s an amazing achievement, and I’m really proud of everyone involved; in Whitehall, in councils, in frontline teams and the families themselves, of course,” she says.

“I think the success of a programme like this is that the relationship between workers and families builds trust and gets to grips with things in a way that public services haven’t always done before.

“If there are any lessons for others, it’s probably that you have to get the relationships right when you’re dealing with complicated human situations. A blanket approach of one service dealing with one problem in one way is just never going to work.”

The Troubled Families Programme has come under fire from some critics – including the head of the British Association of Social Workers – who believed that the scheme would not meet its target of helping 120,000 families. But Casey says the programme is on track.

“We never had progress targets, and always said the majority of results would come through in the final year because of the long-term nature of the work – having to have kids in school for three consecutive terms, for example. But we’re very pleased with our progress.”

With its combined £448m of funding from Education, Communities, Work and Pensions, Health, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, the Troubled Families Programme is one of very few major cross-departmental schemes.

With so many cooks in the kitchen, the programme could have been disastrous, with departments ever keen to see a return on their investments. Embarking on a five-year extension starting from April, however, the programme is regarded as a success story and its focus on collaboration between departments and local government was last year praised by the independent Service Transformation Challenge Panel.

“All credit to the secretaries of state who have put their departments’ money in, and then not micro-managed it – even if there wasn’t an immediate return in it for them – because they could see the long- term vision and benefits of the programme, and bought into that,” Casey says.

Using a payment-by-results system, local authorities are paid per outcome, and can earn up to £4,000 per family. Although initially hesitant about measuring success in this way, Casey admits the scheme has motivated authorities.

“We did have some concerns at the start – I’d never run a programme like this purely by payment-by-results before. But we worked with councils on getting the design of it right and I do think it has brought a real focus to the programme in terms of the big three things we wanted to achieve: getting kids in school every day, getting families out of trouble with the police and getting adults into or back into work.”

As with so much of Casey’s work, Troubled Families is centred on achieving the best possible outcomes for vulnerable people. Consequently, much of the early focus was on establishing the right relationships between families and workers, while at the same time ensuring the Treasury was happy.

Reflecting on her time in public service, Casey believes she has developed a greater understanding of Whitehall mechanisms, and it certainly seems that Whitehall has begun to acclimatise to her working methods.

“There’s a more of a sense of understanding about the difference my type of contribution makes now, more than at any time in my career,” she says. “I would say right at the beginning, they [didn’t] quite understand it, [but] I’m not sure I quite articulated it… and I had no track record.”

Having kept the Troubled Families Programme on track and championed the fight against child exploitation – shortly before CSW went to press, the prime minister announced child sexual exploitation would be upgraded to the status of ‘national threat’ following Casey’s Rotherham report – she certainly has an impressive track record now.

That said, don’t expect her to start conforming any time soon. “The contribution that I make doesn’t necessarily fit easily into the structures of the normal civil service,” she says. “So I still feel a bit of an oddity. But that’s alright.”


CASEY ON…

Winning the PAC and Policy Awards
That was extraordinary, wasn’t it? We didn’t think we were going to win the Policy Award and we bloody won, didn’t we?
For the team to have won a Policy Award, and then for me to win the PAC Award, that was extraordinary, very emotional actually. Who’d have thought?

The media
Media appearances have to be done, because we have to be clear about why we are doing these things. 
We try and be upfront about where we think we [Casey’s team] could be better or where things could be different, which of course is very difficult territory within the media or politics.

Failure
I think in public life, in society, we need to be kinder when people are able to talk about the very difficult things that haven’t been got right. 
I am not letting anybody off the hook, but my sense of most people – though not all – in public service is that they don’t exist to harm a victim or to treat people badly.

 

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Sarah Aston
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