So: does the Troubled Families Programme work or not? – Part Two

Jason Lowther

In this blog last week I outlined results of the “impact evaluation” element of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) and the rather limited pre-existing evidence base the TFP had to be built upon. How can government build on existing evidence in designing its initiatives, and what can we do when there isn’t much in the evidence cupboard?

Many government programmes have the luxury of a relatively strong evidence base on which to build. The previous Labour government’s National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal and Sure Start programmes, for instance, could draw on decades of research (collated through the 18 Policy Action Teams) on urban initiatives and the impact of early years experiences on achievements in later life. These sometimes honoured the extant evidence more in the theory than in practice[i], but at least they had foundations on which to build.

As evaluations of the Labour government’s Crime Reduction Programme found[ii], it is a difficult task to translate evidence, which is often “fragmented and inconclusive” into practical government programmes. People skilled at this task are in short supply in central government.

But in the case of the TFP, the most robust element of the existing evidence base was a single evaluation using a “control” of 54 families and focussed on addressing anti-social behaviour through Family Intervention Projects. What can government do when the evidence base is thin?

One strong tradition, particularly around medicine and around welfare policies in the USA, has been the idea of “experimental government” using social experiments to determine whether (and if so how) innovative approaches work in practice. For example, in the last three decades of the 20th century, America’s Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) conducted 30 major random assignment experiments involving nearly 300,000 people.

Historically, randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were viewed by many as the “gold standard” of evaluation by allowing statistically robust assessments of “causality” – whether observed changes are due to the intervention being evaluated. More recent thinking emphasises that evaluations need to be designed in the best way to create robust evidence and answer specific questions. Often this will involve a mixture of methods, both quantitative and qualitative. The TFP evaluation used a mixture of methods but without building in a “control” group of “troubled families” not yet receiving the TFP interventions.

Granger[iii] argued (for area based initiatives), that the range and variety of initiatives and the scale of change in government means that a strict statistical “control” is unfeasible. She argued that it is “virtually impossible” to achieve precise and clear-cut causal attribution and that we need clear, strong theories as a basis for counterfactual reasoning and causal inference.

The TFP evaluation did not develop or test a “theory of change” for the programme. This is a pity, because rigorously testing a theory can help illuminate where and how programmes do (or don’t) have real impact.

There are several other lessons we can learn from the existing literature on evaluation in government, for example the importance of timing and data quality. We’ll look at these next time.

[i] Coote, Anna, Jessica Allen, and David Woodhead. “Finding out what works.” Building knowledge about complex, community-based initiatives. London: Kings Fund (2004), esp. pp. 17-18.

[ii] Nutley, Sandra, and Peter Homel. “Delivering evidence-based policy and practice: Lessons from the implementation of the UK Crime Reduction Programme.” Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice 2.1 (2006): 5-26.

[iii] Granger, R. C. (1998) ‘Establishing causality in evaluations of comprehensive community initiatives’, New approaches to evaluating community initiatives, 2, pp. 221-46.

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

So: does the Troubled Families Programme work or not?

Jason Lowther

In this blog last week I outlined the roller coaster trajectory of the Troubled Families Programme in the media, from saviour of all England’s most “troubled families”, to a wasteful and failed £1bn vanity project in under five months.  This despite independent evaluators finding the programme has radically transformed support for these families, and the families themselves saying that it has worked for them.

In most government evaluations, that is where the story would stop.  Yet another tremendously successful project from Whitehall.  But the DCLG (with a little encouragement from Treasury) were much braver.  They wanted to know how many of these improvements would have happened in any case, even without the Troubled Families Programme (TFP).  This is a dangerous question to ask.  And quite a tough one to answer.

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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:

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Reimagining the public service ethos

Steven Parker

There are many ways to imagine the public service ethos – as an old-fashioned approach to public service delivery, or one that can be improved by closer working between different sectors.  A recent example of this is a report on ‘the new public service ethos’ (Localis 2016). The report noted a clear perception of the public service ethos among public sector staff, but that a lack of awareness between the public and private sectors had led to a perceived ‘cultural misalignment’ between them. It concluded that different sectors need to work together more closely to provide value for local public service delivery.
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How many public servants does it take to organise Christmas?


Catherine Mangan

As 2016 draws to an end, INLOGOV would like wish ‘Happy Christmas’ to all the inspirational public servants we have met and worked with over the past year.   The work of INLOGOV brings us into contact with a range of people dedicated to improving the lives of their citizens.  These include the graduate trainees who have just joined local government; our part time Masters students, juggling full time, demanding jobs with gaining a qualification that will stand them in good stead for their future careers; senior leaders who are working across organisations to develop innovative solutions to our most challenging ‘wicked issues’, and front line staff who continue to support residents in a variety of innovative and thoughtful ways, in spite of budget cuts.

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