Troubled Families programme under fire after damning independent study

Written by Josh May and Matt Foster on 18 October 2016 in News
News

National Institute of Economic and Social Research study, commissioned by the government, finds “no significant or systematic impact” of the programme, as the Department for Communities and Local Government says it has learned lessons from its first phase

An independent report has found no evidence that David Cameron’s flagship ‘Troubled Families’ programme has had a marked impact.

The initiative was launched by the former prime minister in 2012 before being granted a £900m extension last year, when Cameron hailed it as a “real success”.

Analysis by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, commissioned by the Government, was finally published yesterday, drawing into question the success of the scheme at improving the employment prospects of the targeted families and cutting truancy and criminality.


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Ministers had been accused of sitting on the report due to its negative results.

The scheme sees central government give councils up to £4,000 to identify and turn around eligible families; the families then receive a dedicated social worker to coordinate public services support to tackle their problems.

But the NIESR said there was “no significant or systematic impact” of the programme.

“The key finding is that across a wide range of outcomes, covering the key objectives of the Troubled Families Programme – employment, benefit receipt, school attendance, safeguarding and child welfare – we were unable to find consistent evidence that the programme had any significant or systematic impact.

“The vast majority of impact estimates were statistically insignificant, with a very small number of positive or negative results.

“These results are consistent with those found by the separate and independent impact analysis using survey data, also published today, which also found no significant or systemic impact on outcomes related to employment, job seeking, school attendance, or anti-social behaviour.”

"What on earth did the Treasury think it was doing allowing public money to be squandered like this?" – Jonathan Portes, NIESR

The report found that outcomes for families in the programme were almost identical to those who were not given special treatment: 45% still claimed jobless benefits a year-and-a-half later, while anti-social behaviour, criminal offences, and truancy levels were no lower for those in the programme.

The NIESR's Jonathan Portes, former chief economist for the Department for Work and Pensions and the Cabinet Office, and a long-standing critic of the programme, said the Troubled Families scheme was "a perfect case study" of how "the manipulation and misrepresentation of statistics by politicians and civil servants" could lead to "bad policy and, frankly, to the wasting of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money".

Writing on his personal blog, Portes acknowledged that "successful policymaking requires experimentation and risk-taking".

But he accused the government of a "deliberate misrepresentation of the data and statistics", leading to "badly formulated targets" and a "funding model that could have been designed to waste money".

Portes wrote: "What on earth did the Treasury think it was doing allowing public money to be squandered like this? Were they busy cutting core local authority budgets to notice that CLG were throwing hundreds of millions of pounds away with no serious scrutiny?"

Louise Casey (pictured), the civil servant who acted as director general of the Troubled Families programme from 2010 to 2015, will faced questions on the scheme from MPs on the Public Accounts Committee on Wednesday.

"Families said they valued the trust, honesty and persistence of keyworkers" – Department for Communities and Local Government

Ahead of that appearance, the Department for Communities and Local Government last night published a detailed "lessons learned" report on the first five years of the scheme, responding to the NIESR study and setting out the steps it plans to take to improve the programme over the next five years.

The report acknowledged that the independent analysis had been "unable to attribute improvements in families' lives to the programme". But it said families had been "hugely positive about the service", with 76% saying the help they had received had "made more difference to their lives than previous help they had received".

"They also said they valued the trust, honesty and persistence of keyworkers," the department added.

Planned changes for the 2015-20 version of the programme include a new "National Impact Study" to track outcomes every six months, with an independent team of academics providing external scrutiny.

"The evaluation will measure the progress of families on over sixty outcome measures across crime, health, education, domestic abuse, employment and child-safeguarding," the department said.

It added: "As part of the evaluation we are also collecting qualitative information from LAs and families about how the programme is being delivered. Ipsos MORI have conducted a survey of over 1,000 families who will be re-interviewed two years later, and which will capture improvements in families such as self-reported domestic abuse using the same measure as the Crime Survey for England and Wales."

Meanwhile, the department has also opted to resdesign the "payment by results" element of the scheme for its 2015-20 version.

The NIESR said the original programme had only a "limited mechanism to avoid paying for results not attributable" to its interventions.

The DCLG said payments for the 2015-20 version of the programme would only take place once there had been "sustained and significant progress against all of the family's problems" or where an adult in the family has moved into "continuos employment".

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