Sunday Nov 18

EXCERPT FROM Broken Benefits: What’s Gone Wrong with Welfare Reform? “Street Level Bureacracy” Saves the Troubled Families Program in the United Kingdom

Michael Lipsky coined the phrase ‘street-level bureaucracy’ to highlight the central role of street-level practitioners, such as social workers, teachers, youth workers, housing officers, police officers, health workers, and so on, in implementing social and public policies. He argued that ‘the actions of most public service workers actually constitute the services “delivered” by government’ (Lipsky, 1980: 3) and that each encounter with street-level bureaucrats ‘represents an instance of policy delivery’. Lipsky also highlighted the extent of discretion that frontline workers actually have, despite efforts to regulate their work more closely. He highlights that police officers ‘cannot carry around instructions on how to intervene with citizens, particularly in potentially hostile encounters’ (Lipsky, 1980: 15) and the same applies to a host of other roles. Teachers do not have a step-by-step guide on how to deal with each different situation that arises in the classroom, nor do social workers have a standard script that they must adhere to during home visits. Such discretion and autonomy is particularly important in the Families Program (TFP), as workers are expected to know when to be ‘persistent, assertive and challenging’ and when to be more supportive of families, or when and how to work on their behalf in dealings with other agencies. The coalition government’s wider focus on localism and decentralisation ensured that no statutory duties or new legislation were enacted in respect of the TFP in its first phase. While the government identifies what constitutes a ‘troubled family’, albeit with varying degrees of local discretion, and also what outcomes are required of the families, how local authorities work, and indeed what individual practitioners do, with ‘troubled families’ is largely up to them. The programme remains voluntary, with no official sanction for families that refuse to engage with it, and workers thus often have to be persuasive and creative in how they ‘sell’ the programme to families they need to work with.

Lipsky is by no means the only person to identify the potential for policies to be delivered in ways that were not always consistent with their original aims. In a classic work called Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland, Pressman and Wildavsky (1984: xviii) suggest that problems in achieving policy goals are often ‘of a prosaic and everyday character’, noting that it should not be underestimated ‘how difficult it can be to make the ordinary happen’. Drass and Spencer (1987: 278), in examining probation officers accounts of their exercise of discretion, proposed ‘a theory of office … a “working ideology” which consists of typologies of deviant actors and appropriate processing outcomes, as well as rules which link the two’. Researchers in the UK in recent times have also noted the potential for a ‘governmentality gap’ (McNeill et al, 2009: 419) in social work and ‘counter agency’ (Prior 2009) among frontline workers. Researchers have also highlighted tensions that occur in the space between the design of a policy and its delivery. Bourdieu suggested that the social and welfare functions of the state constituted its left hand, with the more technocratic, fiscally minded functions forming its right hand. He argued that social workers and other ‘base line judges’ were ‘agents of the state … shot through with the contradictions of the state’ (Bourdieu et al, 1999: 184), but that these contradictions open up ‘a margin of manoeuvre, initiative and freedom’ (1999: 191).

Work by Pearson has noted the ‘industrial deviance’ performed by social workers in carrying out their jobs and achieving the desired ends. In The Deviant Imagination (1975), he explored the ‘ambiguous politics of social work’ and refers to social workers as ‘social policemen’, ‘social tranquilisers’ and ‘professional Robin Hoods’, who take part in ‘moral hustling’. These ‘ambiguous politics’ include the dual (and sometimes competing) commitments to individual clients and to wider society, and negotiating the balance between care and control. The expansion and dispersal of discipline and a culture of control (Garland, 2001) means that social workers, often employed or funded by the state, are expected to carry out some controlling functions of the state. These functions sometimes conflict with the original aims and the wider ethics and values of social work, and has led to social workers being called ‘reluctant policemen’ (Burney, 2005: 115) and ‘agents of social control, disguised stormtroopers of the state’ (Cohen, 1985: 130).

The exercise of discretion among social workers, family workers and other street-level bureaucrats in the UK in recent times has been the subject of numerous research studies. For example, Del Roy Fletcher (2011), in work carried out in Jobcentre Plus offices highlighted the ‘inconsistent and discriminatory’ responses to Jobseeker Mandatory Activity pilots where local responses largely depended on the resources and time available to local staff. Sarah Alden (2015) interviewed workers in statutory homelessness services in 12 local authorities where an increase in service users occurred at the same time that resources were falling as a result of austerity measures and reforms. She ‘found evidence of unlawful discretion’, which she ‘attributed to a complex mesh of individual, intersubjective, organisational and central-led factors.’ Research examining the ‘multi-agency’ partnership approaches to tackling anti-social behaviour of the Labour governments in the 1990s and 2000s highlighted the difference that demography, geography, and history can play in localised approaches to ASB (Burney, 2005), while others have highlighted tensions between different partner organisations as a result of competing priorities and institutional attitudes (Matthews and Briggs, 2008; Edwards and Hughes, 2008).

A number of research articles have explored the work carried out by Family Intervention Project (FIP) workers and their efforts to ‘modify the intended outcomes of national policy’ (Parr and Nixon, 2009: 101). These authors go on to note that ‘rich case study data serves to illustrate the ways in which local actors reinterpret formal policy agendas in order to create alternative discourses which both challenge and, in turn, influence national strategies’ (Parr and Nixon, 2009: 102). In discussing FIPs as ‘sites of subversion and resilience’, Parr and Nixon highlight that local FIP workers ‘drew attention to the underlying causes of disruptive and damaging behaviour’ (Parr and Nixon, 2009: 108), and ‘developed an alternative conceptualisation of “the problem” of ASB’, seeking to locate the issue of ASB in wider discourses of social exclusion. Central government, on the other hand, took the symbolic step of establishing a distinct Anti-Social Behaviour Unit (ASBU) in 2002, promoting the issue of ASB from its previous home as a policy strand in the Social Exclusion Unit. Parr and Nixon also discuss the local characteristics – the project manager’s professional background or local governance arrangements, for example – that influenced local practice and service delivery. In a reverse of the usual direction of subversion and negotiation, the authors note that, as the local projects, with ostensibly ‘supportive’ approaches, became seen as increasingly important in efforts to tackle ASB, ‘a process of bargaining occurred’ and they were re-positioned by central government as part of a ‘tough approach’ (Parr and Nixon, 2009: 114) to ‘problem families’. This included the discursive shift from being Intensive Support projects to Intervention projects.

Elsewhere, the same authors have set out how local FIP workers saw themselves as ‘plugging a gap’ in local service provision rather than ‘gripping’ local agencies (Parr and Nixon, 2008: 170) and that there was a ‘varied and contested way in which local stakeholders constructed the role of FIPs together with the anti-social subject’. They conclude that:

Paying attention to the localised development and operation of policies facilitates a more nuanced understanding of the manifestation of the FIP policy and reinforces the view that to properly debate antisocial behaviour policy, we need to look at the practices of those who implement policy, not just the policy text itself. (Parr and Nixon, 2008: 174)

The differences between FIP practice in Scotland and England and the process of policy transfer has also been discussed by researchers. They noted that ‘in English FIPs families were routinely threatened with sanctions to secure their initial cooperation’, with these ‘overtly disciplining practices stand[ing] in stark contrast to the professional ethos evidenced in the Scottish projects’ (Nixon et al, 2010: 318–19). FIPs have also been described as ‘sites of social work practice’ where the design of a local FIP had provided staff ‘with an opportunity to engage in the kindof creative practice that proceduralization, bureaucracy and managerialism have made impossible to achieve in mainstream social work arenas’ (Parr, 2009: 1257). Just as FIPs provided fertile ground for exploring the street-level negotiation of dominant discourses surrounding ‘problem families’, the TFP itself has also offered researchers an opportunity to examine how local practitioners have responded to a high-profile, and controversial, policy aimed at similar families.

Interviews from a range of research studies with workers and managers in local authorities involved in the delivery of the TFP highlight ‘the complexity of interactions concealed beneath the apparent monotony of bureaucratic routine’ (Bourdieu, 2005: 140). While it would be unhelpful and similarly simplistic to talk of a divide between national policy rhetoric and local practice, there were substantial differences – a ‘governmentality gap’ (McNeill et al, 2009) – between the approach promoted by central government and that which was carried out by workers employed by local authorities and their partners.

Where government rhetoric has promoted the idea of an ahistorical, highly individualised family worker, workers involved in the programme in Northton, Westingham and Southborough highlighted long backgrounds in either similar work or in similar institutions and explained the extent to which they relied on colleagues in their teams and in other services to help them with their work. In place of the ‘can do’ attitude and ‘hands on work' carried out in family homes afforded primacy by the likes of Cameron and Casey, a more stereotypical bureaucratic approach was articulated by workers, which involved navigating rules and procedures and negotiating with fellow street-level bureaucrats. Where differences were articulated, they were framed in terms of greater freedom and flexibility offered by the programme, rather than any distinctive dispositions or capabilities possessed by family workers, or acquired by them upon entry to their role.

However, these subversions were all relatively minor alterations to policy that did little to trouble the national portrayal of the TFP (Crossley, 2016). They did not, as DuBois (2014: 39) has observed, ‘contradict the rationales of official policy’ and effectively ended up serving its goals. They were thus all examples of ‘safe oppositions’, occurring within the ‘black box’ of policy implementation, which enabled workers to exhibit autonomy and discretion within the boundaries allowed by the TFP. In Bourdieusian terms, these practices can be viewed as ‘legitimated transgressions’ (Bourdieu, 2005: 132) or:

partial revolutions which constantly occur in fields [and] do not call into question the very foundations of the game, its fundamental axioms, the bedrock of ultimate beliefs on which the whole game is based. (Bourdieu, 1993: 74, original emphasis)

Family workers that participated in the research discussed above believed in the value of their work and have not doubted the idea that family work of some description was necessary for the families that they were working with. They attempted to play the ‘troubled families’ game in the best way they could, given the environment in which they were operating. They lived with the ambiguity of their work and often resisted the politically charged elements of the TFP, such as the idea that they were ‘turning around’ the lives of the families they worked with. What was at stake, for them, then, was not the idea of family intervention or family work with marginalised or ‘troubled families’ per se, but the form that that work took.

There is no room, however, for such nuance or complexity in the ‘troubled families’ story told by the government. As such, the daily work with families, in whatever form it takes, unfortunately only serves to strengthen the popular view that it is only by intensive and direct work with families that their lives can be ‘turned around’. The daily routines of family workers and colleagues in other service areas thus help to produce and reproduce ‘the reality’ of ‘troubled families’. They are, unfortunately, part of the work of the production and reproduction of ‘troubled families’ that the state is engaged with. Their resistance to elements of the programme and their rejection of some of the more stigmatising aspects of it have not ‘troubled’ the bigger picture surrounding the TFP. The more successful workers are in subverting or resisting problematic elements of the programme, the more the government is able to claim that its ‘persistent, assertive and challenging’ approach is working.

Dr Stephen Crossley is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University. He completed his ESRC-funded PhD on ‘troubled families’ at the University of Durham. Prior to entering academia, he worked for local authorities and voluntary sector organisations in the North East of England in youth, community development and neighbourhood management roles. His book, Troublemakers: The Construction of “Troubled Families” as a Social Problem is now available from Policy Press of the University of Bristol (

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