Last month a DCLG-commissioned report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) said that the Government’s Troubled Families initiative has not been effective at improving prospects for children from troubled families. Looking at outcome measures including employment, benefits, school attendance, safeguarding and child welfare, NIESR were “unable to find consistent evidence that the programme had any significant or systematic impact”.
However, it is worth noting that a previous study by Professor Carol Hayden last year appeared to paint a somewhat more mixed picture, highlighting some improvement in cases where week-to-week support was provided to families by a single practitioner, for example. However one theme of the criticisms levelled at the scheme by both reports, by charities and some of the local authorities involved, has seemed to be that outcome measures, used to underpin the Payment by Results (PbR)-based funding to local authorities under the scheme, were not nuanced enough. They failed to capture the deep underlying problems driving family breakdown and relied instead on short-termist central targets.
Prescriptive programmes like Troubled Families and a general dependence on government financing can present a challenge for charities that pride themselves on their traditional roots, in terms of balancing professionalisation with their ideals and the desire to maintain a diversity of funding, including a link with donors in the public at large.
Jayne Stokes, Director of Development and External Affairs at Family Action, was guest speaker at one of our recent EP Foundation seminars. Family Action’s roots go back to the 1860s and the charity still works closely with families on their underlying problems today. Family Action is values-driven about how and when they seek contracts. They regularly seek to partner with local organisations, building relationships long in advance. They aim to assist the whole family, as well as individuals within it, highlighting the importance of holistic approaches to complex problems like family breakdown.
She spoke about how charities can sometimes go where the public sector cannot go – for example provision by specialist charities can avoid old stigmas around ‘social services’ that discourage some families from seeking help. Stokes also said that while all charities must be “good businesses”, with robust accounting and governance, not all need become social enterprises as well.
Stokes was also able to address the Troubled Families programme specifically for us, noting that it was designed for multi-agency and multi-generational responses to complex challenges. Family Action found that experiences had varied in different localities – echoing the Hayden findings based on Hampshire. The charity believes that any discussion of the success or failure of the Troubled Families Programme needs to look beyond the claims about families “turned around” and the high level outcomes data and instead consider the impact achieved at individual family level.
No family that Family Action works with under the Troubled Families Programme presents with a single problem – all have complex issues. A family’s problems will never be solved simply by addressing one issue on its own – a range of pressing problems need to be tackled at the same time. It is important to be realistic about how much change these families are likely to make in the five to twelve months that they are usually commissioned to work with them. In Family Action’s experience, the journey towards improved outcomes is as important, if not more important than, the achievement of narrow, precisely defined short term outcomes.
For example, a significant number of the families Family Action has worked with under the Troubled Families Programme are challenged by domestic abuse and mental health issues – with 32% of parents experiencing mental health issues and domestic abuse present in 47% of cases. Reducing family conflict or domestic abuse or improving family mental health or parenting capacity may in practice be much greater indicators of success in family work than helping a child to attend school more often or getting a member of the household into work. That progress may, of course, be less easy to measure and evidence. It is good that the Troubled Families Programme now recognises the value of making progress in these key areas, and the impact this can have on other outcomes.
It is clear that charities must be savvy about how to raise sufficient funds in order to be in a position to seek PbR contracts, perhaps by showing more clearly their social value to boost fundraising from donors as Family Action does in their Annual Impact Reports.
Our next seminar is on “when and why do charities revert to the law?”, on Tuesday 22nd November. The aim of this seminar is open up what happens when charities engage law firms and for this we are grateful to our speaker, Alex Rook, who is a human rights lawyer and Partner at Irwin Mitchell LLP. The seminar will be held at 5pm at CAN Mezzanine, 49-51 East Road, London N1 6AH. The nearest tube is Old Street. There is no charge for entry. To reserve a place you will need to email Dawn McNulty, firstname.lastname@example.org