Interview: Louise Casey
Having toured Whitehall applying her unique brand of troubleshooting to various social issues, Louise Casey is now leading a flagship payment-by-results scheme involving all her former employers. Joshua Chambers meets her
“I’m not soft,” warns Louise Casey. “I’m tough at helping families, but you have to understand them to help them.” And if anyone understands the problems facing Britain’s troubled families, it’s Casey: an outspoken troubleshooter who has worked for the government since 1999 on tackling homelessness, anti-social behaviour, and helping the victims of crime. Last year, she was drafted in to tackle the thorny issue of the 120,000 families that have – for one reason or another – over the years become dysfunctional, disruptive, and largely dependent on the state.
In a rare display of unified cross-departmental action, her Troubled Families Unit is receiving £448m funding over three years from the communities, education, health, and work & pensions departments, plus the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. Meanwhile, the prime minister himself has launched the scheme and given it his personal backing. Casey admits that “the stakes are very high here. The prime minister is attached to this, the civil service at a very, very senior level have bought into it, and I can’t fail – we can’t fail.”
Sitting in an anonymous meeting room on the top floor of DCLG’s headquarters, she’s here to tell CSW what makes the scheme different from so many previous efforts to pull these families into the mainstream, and why – despite the scale of the challenge – she’s confident that something can be done this time around. Not only is the cross-departmental nature of her scheme interesting, but it’s also being run on a payment by results basis: local authorities are being rewarded only for achieving tangible results. And along with this responsibility for earning payments, councils are being given greater freedom to work with these families in new and innovative ways.
What do you mean by ‘troubled’?
The terminology surrounding Casey’s scheme is somewhat nebulous: sometimes the members of her target group are described as “troubled families”, while many media outlets and commentators call them “problem families”. Who exactly are the people she is intending to help, and what are the problems that they have? “We have known that there is a group of families who didn’t work in the boom times and won’t work in the bust times,” she responds. “They’re unemployed; they’re dependent on benefits.”
Further, the problem is a generational one, Casey explains, with many parents in these families having been brought up in care. “When they start having children, they don’t exactly have fantastic role models to call on, so they bring up their kids in ways that we would describe as chaotic, troubled; their kids aren’t in school regularly and they have behaviour difficulties.”
The results of this create problems and increase spending across government. Truancy exacts costs on social workers and the education system, while out-of-control children often engage in anti-social behaviour or end up embroiled in the criminal justice system. The health service is affected, because troubled families often have mental health, drug and alcohol issues. And many are not registered with a GP, so when they develop health problems they often deteriorate badly before turning up at Accident and Emergency units.
At the local level, numerous agencies get involved; housing associations, for example. “They might be in housing they could wreck,” says Casey. “If you’re a woman who’s facing domestic violence, your kids might want to take the doors off the doorways so they can see what’s happening. But if you’re the housing officer, you’re thinking: ‘Why did you wreck my house?’”
Haven’t there been efforts to tackle this?
Many previous attempts to tackle these complex social problems have failed, Casey says. However, “without a doubt,” she’s confident that it’s possible to turn these families’ lives around.
Casey cites previous initiatives as proof of the ability of government to make a real difference. Back in 2005-6, she brought an approach pioneered in ‘family intervention projects’ from Scotland to England to tackle anti-social behaviour in these families. The schemes worked, she says, but they were too small. “They were what I would call ‘boutique projects’, and these are peppered throughout the public sector.” Projects are set up and funded to achieve very specific purposes. “The problem with that is that they just sit there on top of everything else that’s already going on, so they don’t change the mainstream,” she says.
However, such individual, uncoordinated interventions are “very attractive to do because you can take people to them, you can get people to fund them, you can get people to cut ribbons to open them,” she says. Small schemes can be useful to pilot particular approaches, she adds, but without a joined-up approach they can’t tackle the wider problem – and there has been a “lack of common endeavour, [a] lack of desire” to do so from the public sector as a whole.
For example, some projects have aimed to tackle the physical problems on estates without tackling the underlying societal problems – or visa versa. Casey remembers sitting in a minibus visiting an estate that had been on the receiving end of multiple regeneration initiatives, both under New Labour and the previous Conservative administration. Local regeneration workers were excitedly discussing the housing estate’s new community centre and landscaped gardens. “Everybody was buzzed up and excited; it was heartening to see that an estate that I’d been to before that was run down physically, with bad lighting, no decent community centre, in a really bad way, had obviously changed,” she says.
However, “I look out of the minibus and I see – to be blunt – scrawny little kids wandering around at ten o’clock in the morning on a weekday; and it wasn’t half term. I’m thinking: why are they there? What is going on? What families are they from? What school are they supposed to be in?” Casey concluded that “you can spend all the money you want on landscaping… but you have to tackle the families.”
How will this work?
The government has therefore defined the outcomes it wants to achieve, rather than the outputs it will use to do so. Casey’s scheme aims to turn around the lives of 120,000 troubled families. “That’s the difference: we’ve got a number, we’ve got some money, and we know some of the approaches that will work,” Casey says. The agencies that currently work with these troubled families will continue to do so, but their efforts will this time be focussed through a payment by results scheme – encouraging councils to concentrate on tackling underlying issues, coordinate local services, and bring in extra funds or skills if required.
Over the three years, local authorities can earn up to £4,000 per family for achieving set objectives: either they achieve a reduction in truancy amongst the children, tackle anti-social behaviour and reduce the offending rates of minors in the family, or they get one unemployed member of the family back into work for six months.
The desired outcomes have been specified, but agencies are free to take their own approaches as long as they adhere to one requirement: they must work with the whole family. Casey’s team will help the disparate agencies share knowledge and techniques, working intensively with those struggling to keep up.
“This time around, there’s no scope for boutique projects; the scope is to do full system change around how we work with those families, so [we] can learn the lessons of the family intervention projects,” Casey says.
The metrics were drafted in conjunction with 32 upper-tier local authorities, to ensure that they were confident that the objectives are achievable. “We’ve set the bar quite high, so we needed to know they could deliver it,” Casey says.
So Casey’s team has identified the problem, thought up the payment by results metrics, and got all 152 upper-tier local authorities signed up to take part in the scheme. What’s next? “I think this is important: I want us to connect with the actual families [and] get under the skin of what’s happened to them in their lives: how many kids they have got, what’s happened with those kids, and how they ended up being on a list for troubled families,” she says. “My starting point is: yes, I’ve got a prime minister, permanent secretaries and Whitehall to manage here, but the job is to also look at those families, listen to those families, and work back from there.”
Is now the best time?
As austerity measures bite in Britain, an obvious question springs to mind: why is a cross-government initiative to tackle troubled families only being put in place now? Shouldn’t something have been done when times were good? “Yes, I think it should,” Casey says. Certainly, she thought there was more to be done earlier on anti-social behaviour, she adds.
Casey does concede, however, that it would have been difficult to do something like this at any time. “Problem families are challenging; they have evaded all public services in post-war Britain. If you meet the families and you ask about their parents, their grandparents, you get this picture of quite a level of violence, of poverty, of health problems, of needs that are really, really quite deep-seated and deep-set,” Casey says.
It’s therefore advantageous to have such pressing financial concerns in the public sector, she believes, as this has finally focussed minds on spending money wisely and achieving real results. “These families cost an awful lot of money; and as long as you’re spending an awful lot of money on these families, you’re maintaining them in the state that they’re in as opposed to changing them,” Casey says.
Why have others backed this scheme?
That said, in difficult times, departments have had to stump up quite large sums of money up front for this scheme, in exchange for the promise of future savings. How has Casey reassured them that the project will succeed where so many have failed? It seems that her personal connections have helped: in the past she’s worked on similar problems with both the current head of the civil service, and the Home Office and health permanent secretaries. “We’ve all been around the issues of housing, poverty, health, disadvantage, and money – to be blunt – for a long time. Therefore I’m not pushing them; they’re pushing me,” she says. “I think the problem for me on a personal level is: can I keep up with it? Their expectations are high, I’ve got 120,000 families that are not in my gift, they’re in the gift of local authorities to turn around.”
Many other payment by results schemes across government are using private sector providers, but Casey’s will work directly through local authorities. Why has she decided to take that approach, rather than commissioning directly from the private or voluntary sectors? “You have to work back. If you start with the family, you can see immediately that they go across housing, policing, different types of health, children’s services, and of course child protection. Where’s that best held, led and coordinated? Local government.”
Casey adds that because councils are currently spending money on services for those families, they have both the interest in and the experience of sorting these problems out. “It’s really important that we don’t undercut the statutory responsibilities of the local authority; but the other thing is, I don’t just want a big boutique project. What I want is all of those other services, from policing to housing to health, to change. You have to change the system. By just handing it all over to a charity or the private sector, you bypass again the thing that needs to change.”
It’s a team effort
Casey thinks that she’s quickly managed to win the support of all upper-tier local authorities because of the efforts of her team who, unusually, have followed her around the civil service as she has moved roles. “There’s a group inside Whitehall that have worked with me on and off for a number of years,” she says. “I’ve tried to create a culture of getting on with the job: we’re able to start up immediately and we don’t have to wait six months to recruit people. Therefore we can move really, really quickly.” One of her directors, Joe Tuke, has worked with her for nine years, joining DCLG ahead of her last year to set up the team ready for her arrival. Others in the department, and the Cabinet Office, were willing to be pulled away from their jobs for a few months to help set up the Troubled Families Unit.
“My test is that if someone in a local authority with a lot on their plate picks up the phone and they get a message from someone in the Troubled Families Unit, I want them to think: ‘I’ll take that call, I’m looking forward to it.’ The people in my team need to believe in the cause. Don’t come and work in a team like mine if you don’t believe in the cause, because I just can’t be doing with it,” Casey comments.
Failure is not an option
Casey’s project hits two buttons that government is keen to keep pressing: payment by results, and cross-departmental working. She warns, though, that such high-profile, cross-government payment by results schemes should be used sparingly. “You don’t need the whole of the civil service to be in teams like mine,” she says. “You can’t do this everywhere. I think it would be wrong to put across to readers of your newspaper that you need a lot of this; because if you had a lot of this, you’d never get anything done. If I was competing with 10 other high-delivery programmes then, actually, would we achieve what we need to achieve on troubled families?”
The fact that Casey’s scheme is quite unique is, therefore, an advantage because she’s not competing with other schemes for media attention or political capital. However, it does mean that she feels the pressure.
“My worry is, being utterly candid with you, that I don’t want to fail and we’ve got to make sure that we get this right this time,” she confesses. “It’s a finite amount of money, and probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I think – certainly for me personally, but also more generally. I’m not sure, if we fail, that people will say: ‘Come around again and have another go.’ I think this is a ‘got to get it right everybody’ moment.”
Budgets are tight, but the money has been found to give Casey a good shot at tackling this problem. Local authorities are on board, and the scheme has the backing of key chunks of central government too. Now it’s up to Casey’s team of civil servants, and to the families themselves, to make it work. She’s confident they can be helped, because they want to be helped; but if they can’t be, this problem will persist for yet another generation – and cost an awful lot more money. Louise Casey has a tough streak when it comes to dealing with troubled families; she’ll need that in order to hold her nerve and make sure that, this time around, issues that have persisted for decades are finally resolved.