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Moral entrepreneurs, ‘radical reform’ and factoids

December 9, 2013

The current focus on ‘troubled families’ is only the latest episode of a long running concern with a perceived ‘underclass’ in our society. In the true spirit of previous ‘moral panics’ these families have undoubtedly been ‘defined as a threat to societal values and interests’ and, as we will see below, their ‘nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion’ (Cohen 2002, p1).

The role of chief ‘moral entrepreneur’ (Becker 1963) in this episode is arguably held by Louise Casey, the Director of the Troubled Families Unit in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Casey has been successful in helping to secure the ‘massive expansion’ of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) to include 400,000 newly identified ‘high-risk families’ accompanied by £200 million of extra central government funding. The ‘success’ of the TFP has also been used as justification for wider reforms to the way that public services to disadvantaged families are delivered. Casey has argued previously that

“The next part of the challenge will be to understand more about how success with the families is achieved, and then to seek to widen this approach to a far larger group of families across the country; to reshape, redesign and refocus services.” (Casey 2012 p63)

However, the case for such reform is, at present, quite slim. A formal evaluation of the TFP has not yet reported any findings and a recent National Audit Office report suggested that there was room for improvement in many areas of the programme. However, Casey offered up her own evidence which demonstrates the need for the redesign of services during two separate speeches she gave in July 2013. The first speech took place on the 2 July 2013 to the Local Government Association conference and the second took place two days later to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services conference. At both conferences, when talking about the uncoordinated and costly approach to working with these families, she said the following:

Forgive me if you’ve heard this example before but I think it encapsulates the problem in one story.

One survey looked at 3,000 children in one area of the north east – an area that has been through every deprivation programme going, from city challenge, single regeneration budgets, through to new deal for communities and neighbourhood renewal – and more recently had the pupil premium spent on them.

A survey showed that not one of those 3,000 children had been for a routine dental check-up – for free – but 300 of them had been to A & E for emergency dental treatment.

It is time for radical reform (2nd July 2013)

These four sentences arguably tell us more about Casey and the representation of the families involved than they do about the families themselves. Casey attempts to establish the credibility of both her audience and the evidence she is sharing with them. She is effectively saying “you know this stuff better than me” and implies that the example she talks about is widely known to them and, therefore, must be robust and reliable. She also believes that this ‘story’ manages to distil the essential features of the 120,000 families (who were originally identified as suffering from multiple disadvantages) down into one ‘problem’. In doing so, Casey presents the families as a homogeneous group, and one could surmise she is effectively saying “they’re all basically the same”.

She also highlights the use of a ‘survey’ which suggests a detailed investigation and a systematic gathering of information. The area that she alludes to is portrayed as a “sink estate” – an area where money has been poured in – ‘been through every deprivation programme going’ – and one where it has gone down the plughole. She is saying that previous approaches haven’t worked and nothing, including the people, has changed. A health related statistic is introduced which suggests that children of these families suffer from very poor dental hygiene. I have written elsewhere of the impact of this kind of language and portrayal of families as ‘unclean’ or ‘unhygienic’, drawing on the work of George Orwell, but here, we can turn to Goode and Ben-Yehuda who provide a powerful argument on the effects of such stereotyping

Stereotyping permits the conventional member of a society to feel justified in strong, even savage condemnation; if an individual is a member of a despised category, and shares a host of undesirable characteristics with them, then unambiguous hostility toward him or her should not only be expected – it is demanded. To feel any other way would be to encourage evil behaviour and collude in its further enactment (1994 p72)

Casey also hints at the financial burden these families put on the state and, by extension ‘the taxpayer’, by highlighting the availability of ‘free’ health services which go unused, with demand instead being placed on more expensive ‘emergency’ services. Finally, Casey argues that this one example demonstrates that ‘it is time for radical reform’ and that ‘we can’t go on like this’. In short, this one story proves the need to do things very differently from now on.

Interestingly, the survey to which Casey refers, and which the case for radical reform is being built on, appears not to exist. Personal correspondence to a number of dental public health professionals in the North East failed to locate anyone who knew of such a statistic or survey or the survey itself. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the DCLG asking for the name of the survey and any information relating to it, brought the response that ‘following an extensive search’ of the department’s paper and electronic records, it was established that this information was not held by the DCLG. The ‘information’ had been shared during a meeting held in the department.  A subsequent FOI request for any all relevant information pertaining to the ‘survey’ established that the figure was shared by a local authority in the North East at a meeting in October 2013. Correspondence from the local authority involved to the DCLG showed that their recollection of the ‘discussion’ that took place that day is that the pre-cursor to the figure was the phrase ‘anecdotal information’. In effect, the source of the figure denies it came from a survey and was, from their memory (as opposed to any written records or minutes) an anecdote.

So it would appear that the case for ‘radical reform’ is being built on what is, at best, a factoid – ‘something that takes the form of a fact but is not’ (Levitas 2012 p4). An anecdote should never be afforded any weight in policy making or widespread public sector reform.

This blatant misrepresentation of ‘evidence’ should surprise us but it probably won’t. There have already been questions raised about the ‘discursive shift’ from 120,000 families with multiple disadvantages to the ‘troubled families’ who require intervention to stop crime and anti-social behaviour (Levitas 2012). Concerns have also been voiced about the apparent lack of ethical considerations when compiling the ‘Listening to Troubled Families’ report. And, separately from the Troubled Families Programme, but in a related area, Iain Duncan Smith has suggested that his belief that there are families where three generations have never worked is based on ‘his own observations’.

We also shouldn’t be surprised because, as was remarked right at the start, the concern with ‘troubled families’ is merely the latest episode of an enduring concern with ‘troublesome’ or ‘problematic’ families. We have been here before. To end, we will turn to Richard Titmuss, writing over 50 years ago but still incredibly relevant today, who suggested that

The debate about the ‘problem family’ has been conducted in a singularly uncritical manner. Precision in the use of words and in the observation of phenomena has been generally lacking; heterogeneity has given way to homogeneity … in short, what knowledge has been gained from all these inquiries has not accumulated on any theoretical foundations’ (1957 pv)

Stephen Crossley

9th December 2013

Stephen Crossley is a PhD student in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University.  Email


Becker, H. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. Toronto: Macmillan

Casey, L. (2012). Listening to Troubled Families. London: DCLG

Cohen, S. (2002). Folk devils and moral panics. (3rd edn.). Abingdon: Routledge

Goode, E. & Ben-Yehuda, N. (1994). Moral panics: the social construction of deviance. Cambridge: Blackwell

Levitas, R. (2012) There may be troubled ahead: what we know about those 120,000 ‘troubled families’. ESRC. Available at’Trouble’%20ahead%20(Levitas%20Final%2021April2012).pdf

Titmuss, R. (1957) Foreword in Philp, A. F. & Timms, N. (eds) The Problem of the Problem Family. Liverpool: FSU

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