Troubled Families: Is Lily The Pink Dead?

Jason Lowther

Whatever happened to the Troubled Families Programme (TFP)?  Three weeks before last year’s general election purdah period, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles heralded the Government’s three year programme as “a triumph…[that will] turn around the lives 120,000 of this country’s hardest to help families…[saving] the taxpayer over a billion pounds”.  After the election, Prime Minister Cameron announced the success rate had been 99% which had “saved as much as £1.2 billion in the process”.

Fast forward a few months and the headlines have taken a rapid reverse:

  • “Cameron ‘wasted’ £1.3bn on Troubled Families Programme” (Sky News)
  • “David Cameron’s troubled families programme had no significant impact, report finds” (The Telegraph)
  • “Troubled families and the £1 billion wasted on the vanity of politicians” (Daily Mail)
  • “The money wasted on ‘troubled families’ was not even the biggest problem with this disastrous policy” (The Independent)

Local authorities and practitioners are left scratching their heads – is the Troubled Families Programme the equivalent of Lily The Pink’s “medicinal compound” magically transforming every ailment it touches; or is it a horrendous waste of public money squandered by vain politicians in the midst of searing austerity for local government?

Of course the truth is: neither.  The independent evaluation has (finally) been published and it shows the TFP has achieved a great deal but isn’t the panacea the politicians suggested.

As I said in my blog in the Guardian four years ago, done well the evaluation could revolutionise our understanding of how to turn around these families.

The programme has certainly changed how services for these families are delivered.  The independent evaluation finds it has mainstreamed “whole-family” approaches, stimulated local multi-agency working, opened up previously impossible data sharing and made employment support more responsive.

Families on the programme feel (and told the researchers) that it’s made a big difference to their lives.  Almost seven in ten say that they are confident that their worst problems are behind then, compared with barely half of similar families not on the programme.  A similar proportion say that they “feel in control” and “feel positive about the future” – both significantly more than the families not on the programme.

The figures local authorities submitted about the changes in families who were classified as “troubled” (out of school, out of work, committing crime, etc.) are audited and truthful – they do represent actual changes in people’s circumstances.

And yet, it’s a bit more complicated than that.  Because one of the questions the DCLG bravely asked its independent evaluators was: “what would have happened if we didn’t have the TFP?”

As Permanent Secretary Melanie Dawes told the Public Accounts Committee in October, this is a question government seldom asks itself.  Especially of the £772 billion it spends each year on “current ways of doing things”.

So what does the more sophisticated “what if?” evaluation tell us about the Troubled Families Programme so far, and what lessons are there for government programmes more generally?  I’ll turn to these questions in my blog next week.


Jason Lowther is a senior fellow at INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

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