The first phase of the government’s Troubled Families programme delivered no significant improvements on its main objectives, its evaluation has found.
The research concluded that improvements in safeguarding, school attendance, employment or health among participating families were no better than those seen in similar families who were not part of the £448m programme.
“Any changes (positive or negative) cannot be attributed to participation in the programme, because similar changes were observed for comparable non-participants,” the evaluation’s final synthesis report said.
On child welfare, the evaluation did find statistically significant differences between those involved with Troubled Families and the comparison group. After 12 months, Troubled Families participants were more likely to have children classified as in need but less likely to have children in care than non-participating families.
But evaluation co-author Jonathan Portes noted that it is unclear if this finding is positive or negative.
“It could be social workers saying we’ve only got a limited number of care places anyway and they are already in the Troubled Families programme so at least they have got a key worker,” he said.
“Then there’s this kid who doesn’t have a key worker so we’ll put the second kid in care which is a perfectly rational thing to do and would give you the result that we saw but it would be a positive outcome for the Troubled Families programme.”
While the evaluation said Troubled Families’ lack of impact could be because it only looked at the first 18 months, the lack of progress suggested otherwise.
“We would still have expected to have observed some positive trends in impacts, and yet very few were observed,” the report said, adding that the lack of progress on employability “where successful programmes generally have a short-term impact – does not suggest that longer-term impacts on employment outcomes are very likely”.
The evaluation did, however, find that Troubled Families boosted families’ optimism and confidence.
It found that after 18 months Troubled Families participants were more likely to agree with statements such as “I feel in control of things”, “I feel positive about what the future holds for me and my family” and “I am confident that our worst problems are behind us”. They were also more likely to feel able to manage their finances even though their level of debt had not changed.
The evaluation also said Troubled Families had been important in encouraging councils to improve partnership working.
“The Phase One programme provided an important catalyst for developing and investing in family intervention, at a time when fiscal constraints were being keenly felt,” the report said.
“The programme played a key role in boosting local capacity for family intervention, and expanding the workforce – especially within those areas moving from a low baseline position.”
However, the active involvement of adult social care and health services in the Troubled Families programme was identified as variable and challenging.
The evaluation also criticised Troubled Families’ payment by results framework for allowing councils to get paid even when improvements are due to the normal ups and downs of families’ lives rather than the programme’s intervention.
This, the evaluation said, explained why no significant improvements in families’ lives could be directly attributed to Troubled Families despite the payments by results data suggesting it had benefitted the lives of 116,000 of the 120,000 families that had participated in the programme.
The report recommended that local authorities should only get payments if their Troubled Families programme significantly exceeds the results achieved by comparable services.
Despite this criticism, communities minister Lord Bourne emphasised the payment by results figures in the government’s response to the evaluation.
“We know that more than 116,000 of the families who participated in the first phase of the programme have seen significant improvements in their lives, with children back in school for a year, reduced youth crime and anti-social behaviour, and adults holding down a job,” he wrote.
“Of course, there will always be lessons to learn. As a pioneering programme, working with complex families in this way and on this scale for the first time, we never expected to get everything right and have never claimed to have done so. We believe this programme has transformed the lives of thousands of families. The councils and frontline staff who have put it into practice should be pleased with the work they have done.”
The evaluation also questioned whether the government had underestimated the skills and knowledge that some local authorities already had in working with complex families: “In these local areas, the support offered by the programme to families at lower levels of need was therefore arguably too similar to what came before to register quantifiable impacts.”