“Style is not neutral,” wrote author Martin Amis, “it gives moral directions.”
How we choose to frame things matters. References, idiom, syntax, all betray intentional and unintentional meaning. For politicians and the government, a choice of words is especially important. You’re judged not just on performance but the measure of meaning you attach to words. We probe them for hidden messages, coded language, for direction. Often times such coda isn’t there; banal cliché being a stout defence against double-speak. The goal is to say exactly what you mean, or say nothing at all.
Reflecting on the recent Troubled Families debate I’ve been most struck by government’s failure to understand this. Take the elastic snap of the ‘troubled family’ definition. Stretched to great length it covers all manner of ills, only to whip back to its original size, trapping a legion of problems under the banner ‘troubled’. It neither says what it means, or nothing at all. Louise Casey, the civil servant who set up the programme, conceded even the phrase ‘turned around’ shouldn’t be used in the future to describe the impact it has on a family because it gave an inaccurate impression.
I share this because I’ve always been careful to draw a distinction between the Troubled Families programme and agenda in my own writing. The semantics mattered a great deal to me when I realised that many places had begun to use the impetus of the programme to start working differently with other government agencies locally. Much of it had nothing to do with the Troubled Families programme, but the latter was undeniably the progenitor. I made the same point last year to Durham University’s Stephen Crossley, a vocal critic of the programme, who shared his excellent work with me on both the failures in data reporting and definition of the families. Since our exchange I’ve become more sceptical of the programme, but still maintained my belief the agenda is worth arguing for. Recent news hasn’t dissuaded me of this position.
It may be a minority opinion, but I still believe the troubled families’ agenda got its central analysis correct. Certain families and communities have been locked into intergenerational and cultural deprivation for decades; traditional services just haven’t reached them. We needed to try something different which cut across silos and respond to the actual barriers they were facing to create a material difference in their lives. Even the Ecorys independent evaluation acknowledges the problems these families faced were far more ‘entrenched’ than initially thought.
How does one measure success when dealing with chronic psychological issues or when, as Jenni Russell’s article in last week’s Times noted, someone doesn’t have doors in their home or a working bathroom? When you’re dealing, en masse, with the most complex social cases, what control group can accurately offer a comparison? As the philosopher Bryan Magee wrote, “out of the crooked timber of humanity was nothing straight ever made”. We’ve learnt that data and reporting needs to improve, we’ve also learnt (as if we ever needed to) that payment by results creates perverse incentives, but what we haven’t learnt definitively is that the programme was a failure.
Despite his own consistent criticism, even Jonathan Portes agrees that many social policy experts thought the “basic underlying principles of the programme made a lot of sense”. These underlying principles – inter-agency cooperation, a focus on wider social determinants, a family focused approach – are based on the experience of people working on the front lines in social services. They know too many kids come into care because of the behaviour of Mum and Dad, or that there’s no way some will be able to excel at school until the domestic violence at home stops.
The troubled families programme wasn’t really a programme. It was an experiment; a messy, complex, but worthwhile experiment. Similarly the families it helped weren’t turned around, they just took their first steps in a new direction. But when you haven’t been able to move someone for decades, can a few steps fairly be described as having ‘no impact’?
Our choice of words matters. Those criticising the programme have grounds to do so, but they’re also bound by the same rules of semantics. The evaluation - the prime source material for those now on the attack - stated that it’s possibly “too soon to draw a conclusion”. I’m willing to accept that the troubled families agenda might be a failure. Time will tell, but are critics willing to accept that it still might be a success? I guess this depends on your definition of success. Style is not neutral.
Liam Booth-Smith, chief executive, Localis
'The Troubled families agenda might still prove a success'