Until last month the Troubled Families programme attracted little media interest. That is because it was understood to be working fairly well. But then came a report which was interpreted as meaning the programme was a hopeless failure.   The report was duly splashed across the front pages.

In January 2013, Ecorys, a consultancy firm, was commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government “to lead a consortium providing an independent evaluation of the Phase One Troubled Families Programme”.   This concerned the mission of “turning around the lives of 120,000 families with multiple and complex needs in England”.

The results were written up as having shown the programme to be worthless – a complete a waste of money. The journalists who reported that conclusion did not need to bother reading the hundreds of pages from the various National Evaluation report.  Instead they could rely on something much more succinct and punchy – a blog post from Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. He denounced the policy as a “disaster”. 

Portes certainly scored a media triumph with his unnuanced approach. By the time anybody had got round to reading the reports or hearing the programme’s director, Louise Casey’s, defence before the Public Accounts Committee, the focus had switched to other matters.

However, a more fair-minded consideration of the report suggests that the programme has – to paraphrase the Heineken advertisement – been the public sector reform that has reached those families other public sector reforms can’t reach. In so doing, far from being a waste of money, it has provided a saving for the taxpayer.

It is not disputed that the overwhelming majority of families included in the programme make great progress. The difficulty is whether that can be proven to be attributable. The struggle to find objective measures meant the research project was challenging – this caused delays which were then assumed to be about the findings being “suppressed”.

In her committee evidence, Casey said:

“When you look at the impact of the programme against the families with those multiple problems, having a 77% reduction in police call-outs, a 61% reduction in the risk of eviction and—dare I say it?—a trickier and more controversial one, a 46% reduction in under-18 conceptions, you can see that with those families you cannot give up on them.”

There has been scepticism about local authorities claiming 98 or 99 per cent success rates with claims for 116,654 of the 120,000 families being “turned round”. The explanation is that councils worked with more families than their target number – that was why many were able to claim a full 100 per cent for the target when they achieved the required results. The local authorities audited their own figures and were paid by results – £4,000 for each family where the intervention was a success. But there were spot checks carried out on the local authorities’ claims and no evidence of fraud. 

Given that there was not a “control group” of troubled families that were identified, but refused any help, it is understandable that producing statistical certainty was difficult. The most troubled families were the first ones helped – so the comparison was with a group that started out as less troubled. I hope that future research may be more definitive – that it will be able to establish the gains are attributable to the programme. What this report certainly does not prove is any lack of attribution.

Casey believes that the programme has “pioneered new ways of working with families that meant that local authorities were working in a whole-family way, rather than on a child-by-child basis”. It has meant more children turning up for school, more people holding down jobs, and a reduction in crime and anti social behaviour. 

At any rate, the families themselves noticed a difference. A survey in the Evaluation Report found:

“Families in the Troubled Families group were more likely to report managing well financially; knowing how to keep on the right track; being confident that their worst problems were behind them, and feeling positive about the future, when compared with a matched comparison group. The impact of the programme on these outcomes was statistically significant.”

This is an area where achieving anything tangible is difficult – and producing objective statistical measures of the achievement even harder. A message of despair will always be easier to communicate. The programme itself is improving and so are the efforts to accurately measure it. Already it is a success on the balance of probabilities. One day I expect it to be proved a success beyond all reasonable doubt. David Cameron, Sir Eric Pickles and Dame Louise Casey can be proud of what has been achieved. So can those who have worked hard in local government – often with some courage and against the odds. They have been rescuing families, not fiddling figures.

It is right for the programme to continue.