Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues

Imagine this as your ‘early intervention’ policy choice: (a) a universal and non-stigmatising programme for all parents/ children, with minimal evidence of effectiveness, high cost, and potential public opposition about the state intervening in family life; or (b) a targeted, stigmatising programme for a small number, with more evidence, less cost, but the sense that you are not really intervening ‘early’ (instead, you are waiting for problems to arise before you intervene). What would you do, and how would you sell your choice to the public?

I ask this question because ‘early intervention’ seems to the classic valence issue with a twist. Most people seem to want it in the abstract: isn’t it best to intervene as early as possible in a child’s life to protect them or improve their life chances?

However, profound problems or controversies arise when governments try to pursue it. There are many more choices than I presented, but the same basic trade-offs arise in each case. So, at the start, it looks like you have lucked onto a policy that almost everyone loves. At the end, you realise that you can’t win. There is no such thing as a valence issue at the point of policy choice and delivery.

To expand on these dilemmas in more depth, I compare cases of Scottish and UK Government ‘families policies’. In previous posts, I portrayed their differences – at least in the field of prevention and early intervention policies – as more difficult to pin down than you might think. Often, they either say the same things but ‘operationalise’ them in very different ways, or describe very different problems then select very similar solutions.

This basic description sums up very similar waves of key ‘families policies’ since devolution: an initial focus on social inclusion, then anti-social behaviour, followed by a contemporary focus on ‘whole family’ approaches and early intervention. I will show how they often go their own ways, but note the same basic context for choice, and similar choices, which help qualify that picture.

Early intervention & prevention policies are valence issues …

A valence (or ‘motherhood and apple pie’) issue is one in which you can generate huge support because the aim seems, to most people, to be obviously good. Broad aims include ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. In the UK specific aims include a national health service free at the point of use. We often focus on valence issues to highlight the importance of a political party’s or leader’s image of governing competence: it is not so much what we want (when the main parties support very similar things), but who you trust to get it.

Early intervention seems to fit the bill: who would want you to intervene late or too late in someone’s life when you can intervene early, to boost their life chances at an early stage as possible? All we have to do is work out how to do it well, with reference to some good evidence. Yet, as I discuss below, things get complicated as soon as we consider the types of early intervention available, generally described roughly as a spectrum from primary (stop a problem occurring and focus on the whole population – like a virus inoculation) to secondary (address a problem at an early stage, using proxy indicators to identify high-risk groups), and tertiary (stop a problem getting worse in already affected groups).

Similarly, look at how Emily St Denny and I describe prevention policy. Would many people object to the basic principles?

“In the name of prevention, the UK and Scottish Governments propose to radically change policy and policymaking across the whole of government. Their deceptively simple definition of ‘prevention policy’ is: a major shift in resources, from the delivery of reactive public services to solve acute problems, to the prevention of those problems before they occur. The results they promise are transformative, to address three crises in politics simultaneously: a major reduction in socioeconomic equalities by focusing on their ‘root causes’; a solution to unsustainable public spending which is pushing public services to breaking point; and, new forms of localised policymaking, built on community and service user engagement, to restore trust in politics”.

… but the evidence on their effectiveness is inconvenient …

A good simple rule about ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is that there is never a ‘magic bullet’ to tell you what to do or take the place of judgement. Politics is about making choices which benefit some people while others lose out. You can use evidence to help clarify those choices, but not produce a ‘technical’ solution. A further rule with ‘wicked’ problems is that the evidence is not good enough even to generate clarity about the cause of the problem. Or, you simply find out things you don’t want to hear.

Early intervention seems to be a good candidate for the latter, for three main reasons:

  1. Very few interventions live up to high evidence standards

There are two main types of relevant ‘evidence based’ interventions in this field. The first are ‘family intervention projects’ (FIPs). They generally focus on low income, often lone parent, families at risk of eviction linked to factors such as antisocial behaviour, and provide two forms of intervention: intensive 24/7 support, including after school clubs for children and parenting skills classes, and treatment for addiction or depression in some cases, in dedicated core accommodation with strict rules on access and behaviour; and an outreach model of support and training. The evidence of success comes from evaluation and a counterfactual: this intervention is expensive, but we think that it would have cost far more money and heartache if we had not intervened to prevent (for example) family homelessness. There is generally no randomised control trial (RCT) to establish the cause of improved outcomes, or demonstrate that those outcomes would not have happened without an intervention of this sort.

The second are projects imported from other countries (primarily the US and Australia) based on their reputation for success. This reputation has been generated according to evidential rules associated with ‘evidence based medicine’ (EBM), in which there is relatively strong adherence to a hierarchy of evidence, with RCTs and their systematic review at the top, and the belief that there should be ‘fidelity’ to programmes to make sure that the ‘dosage’ of the intervention is delivered properly and its effect measured. Key examples include the Family Nurse Partnership (although its first UK RCT evaluation was not promising), Triple P (although James Coyne has his doubts!), and Incredible Years (but note the importance of ‘indicated’ versus ‘selective’ programmes, below). In this approach, there may be more quantitative evidence of success, but it is still difficult to know if the project can be transferred effectively and if its success can be replicated in another country with a very different political drivers, problems, and levels of existing services. We know that some interventions are associated with positive outcomes, but we struggle to establish definitively that they caused them (solely, separate from their context).

  1. The evidence on ‘scaling up’ for primary prevention is relatively weak

Kenneth Dodge (2009) sums up a general problem with primary prevention in this field. It is difficult to see much evidence of success because: there are few examples of taking effective specialist projects ‘to scale’; there are major issues around ‘fidelity’ to the original project when you scale up (including the need to oversee a major expansion in well-trained practitioners); and, it is difficult to predict the effect of a programme, which showed promise when applied to one population, to a new and different population.

  1. The evidence on secondary early intervention is also weak

This point about different populations with different motivations is demonstrated in a more recent (published 2014) study by Stephen Scott et al of two Incredible Years interventions – to address ‘oppositional defiant disorder symptoms and antisocial personality character traits’ in children aged 3-7 (for a wider discussion of such programmes see the Early Intervention Foundation’s Foundations for life: what works to support parent child interaction in the early years?).

They highlight a classic dilemma in early intervention: the evidence of effectiveness is only clear when children have been clinically referred (‘indicated approach’), but unclear when children have been identified as high risk using socioeconomic predictors (‘selective approach’):

An indicated approach is simpler to administer, as there are fewer children with severe problems, they are easier to identify, and their parents are usually prepared to engage in treatment; however, the problems may already be too entrenched to treat. In contrast, a selective approach targets milder cases, but because problems are less established, whole populations have to be screened and fewer cases will go on to develop serious problems.

For our purposes, this may represent the most inconvenient form of evidence on early intervention: you can intervene early on the back of very limited evidence of likely success, or have a far higher likelihood of success when you intervene later, when you are running out of time to call it ‘early intervention’.

… so governments have to make and defend highly ‘political’ choices …

I think this is key context in which we can try to understand the often-different choices by the UK and Scottish Governments. Faced with the same broad aim, to intervene early to prevent poor outcomes, the same uncertainty and lack of evidence that their interventions will produce the desired effect, and the same need to DO SOMETHING rather than wait for the evidence that may never arise, what do they do?

Both governments often did remarkably similar things before they did different things

From the late 1990s, both governments placed primary emphasis initially on a positive social inclusion agenda, followed by a relatively negative focus on anti-social behaviour (ASB), before a renewed focus on the social determinants of inequalities and the use of early intervention to prevent poor outcomes.

Both governments link families policies strongly to parenting skills, reinforcing the idea that parents are primarily responsible for the life chances of their children.

Both governments talk about getting away from deficit models of intervention (the Scottish Government in particular focuses on the ‘assets’ of individuals, families, and communities) but use deficit-model proxies to identify families in need of support, including: lone parenthood, debt problems, ill health (including disability and depression), and at least one member subject to domestic abuse or intergenerational violence, as well as professional judgements on the ‘chaotic’ or ‘dysfunctional’ nature of family life and of the likelihood of ‘family breakdown’ when, for example, a child it taken into care.

So, when we consider their headline-grabbing differences, note this common set of problems and drivers, and similar responses.

… and selling their early intervention choices is remarkably difficult …

Although our starting point was valence politics, prevention and early intervention policies are incredibly hard to get off the ground. As Emily St Denny and I describe elsewhere, when policymakers ‘make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate the scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise’ prevention, they face several fundamental problems, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute income, distribute public resources, and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims which prompt them to maintain existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. More importantly, policymakers soon think that their task is impossible. Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution’.

These constraints refer to the broad idea of prevention policy, while specific policies can involve different drivers and constraints. With general prevention policy, it is difficult to know what government policy is and how you measure its success. ‘Prevention’ is vague, plus governments encourage local discretion to adapt the evidence of ‘what works’ to local circumstances.

Governments don’t get away with this regarding specific policies. Instead, Westminster politics is built on a simple idea of accountability in which you know who is in charge and therefore to blame. UK central governments have to maintain some semblance of control because they know that people will try to hold them to account in elections and general debate. This ‘top down’ perspective has an enduring effect, particularly in the UK, but also the Scottish, government.

… so the UK Government goes for it and faces the consequences ….

‘Troubled Families’ in England: the massive expansion of secondary prevention?

So, although prevention policy is vague, individual programmes such as ‘troubled families’ contain enough detail to generate intense debate on central government policy and performance and contain elements which emphasise high central direction, including sustained ministerial commitment, a determination to demonstrate early success to justify a further rollout of policy, and performance management geared towards specific measurable short term outcomes – even if the broader aim is to encourage local discretion and successful long term outcomes.

In the absence of unequivocally supportive evidence (which may never appear), the UK government relied on a crisis (the London riots in 2011) to sell policy, and ridiculous processes of estimation of the size of the problem and performance measurement to sell the success of its solution. In this system, ministers perceive the need to display strength, show certainty that they have correctly diagnosed a problem and its solution, and claim success using the ‘currency’ of Westminster politics – and to do these things far more quickly than the people gathering evidence of more substantive success. There is a lot of criticism of the programme in terms of its lack, or cynical use, of evidence but little of it considers policy from an elected government’s perspective.

…while the Scottish Government is more careful, but faces unintended consequences

This particular UK Government response has no parallel in Scotland. The UK Government is far more likely than its Scottish counterpart to link families policies to a moral agenda in response to crisis, and there is no Scottish Government equivalent to ‘payment by results’ and massive programme expansion. Instead, it continued more modest roll-outs in partnership with local public bodies. Indeed, if we ‘zoom in’ to this one example, at this point in time, the comparison confirms the idea of a ‘Scottish Approach’ to policy and policymaking.

Yet, the Scottish Government has not solved the problems I describe in this post: it has not found an alternative ‘evidence based’ way to ‘scale up’ early intervention significantly and move from secondary/ tertiary forms of prevention to the more universal/ primary initiatives that you might associate intuitively with prevention policy.

Instead, its different experiences have highlighted different issues. For example, its key vehicle for early intervention and prevention is the ‘collaborative’ approach, such as in the Early Years Collaborative. Possibly, it represents the opposite of the UK’s attempt to centralise and performance-manage-the-hell-out-of the direction of major expansion.

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

Certainty, with this approach, your main aim is not to generate evidence of the success of interventions – at least not in the way we associate with ‘evidence based medicine’, randomised control trials, and the star ratings developed by the Early Intervention Foundation. Rather, the aim is to train local practitioners to use existing evidence and adapt it to local circumstances, experimenting as you go, and gathering/using data on progress in ways not associated with, for example, the family nurse partnership.

So, in terms of the discussion so far, perhaps its main advantage is that a government does not have to sell its political choices (it is more of a delivery system than a specific intervention) or back them up with evidence of success elsewhere. In the absence of much public, media, or political party attention, maybe it’s a nice pragmatic political solution built more on governance principles than specific evidence.

Yet, despite our fixation with the constitution, some policy issues do occasionally get discussed. For our purposes, the most relevant is the ‘named person’ scheme because it looks like a way to ‘scale up’ an initiative to support a universal or primary prevention approach and avoid stigmatising some groups by offering a service to everyone (in this respect, it is the antithesis to ‘troubled families’). In this case, all children in Scotland (and their parents or guardians) get access to a senior member of a public service, and that person acts as a way to ‘join up’ a public sector response to a child’s problems.

Interestingly, this universal approach has its own problems. ‘Troubled families’ sets up a distinction between troubled/ untroubled to limit its proposed intervention in family life. Its problem is the potential to stigmatise and demoralise ‘troubled’ families. ‘Named person’ shows the potential for greater outcry when governments try to not identify and stigmatise specific families. The scheme is largely a response to the continuous suggestion – made after high profile cases of child abuse or neglect – that children can suffer when no agency takes overall responsibility for their care, but has been opposed as excessive infringement on normal family life and data protection, successfully enough to delay its implementation.

The punchline to early intervention as a valence issue

Problems arise almost instantly when you try to turn a valence issue into something concrete. A vague and widely-supported policy, to intervene early to prevent bad outcomes, becomes a set of policy choices based on how governments frame the balance between ideology, stigma, and the evidence of the impact and cost-effectiveness of key interventions (which is often very limited).

Their experiences are not always directly comparable, but the UK and Scottish Governments have helped show us the pitfalls of concrete approaches to prevention and early intervention. They help us show that your basic policy choices include: (a) targeted programmes which increase stigma, (b) ‘indicated’ approaches which don’t always look like early intervention; (c) ‘selective’ approaches which seem to be less effective despite intervening at an earlier stage, (d) universal programmes which might cross a notional line between the state and the family, and (e) approaches which focus primarily on local experimentation with uncertain outcomes.

None of these approaches provide a solution to the early intervention dilemmas that all governments face, and there is no easy way to choose between approaches. We can make these choices more informed and systematic, by highlighting how all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit together, and somehow comparing their intended and unintended consequences. However, this process does not replace political judgement – and quite right too – because there is no such thing as a valence issue at the point of policy choice and delivery.






Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

2 responses to “Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues

  1. Janie Law

    Very helpful analysis of the problem of moving from the articulation of a shared goal to concrete action. We desperately need to move from easy generalisations in Scotland to honest debate about the scale of our problems and what works .
    I was amazed by the outpouring of rage against the Named Person scheme which far exceeded any expression of grievance about the utter desperation of some children’s lives .
    There is good work being done in Scotland but no room for complacency. Vigilance about how we use our resources and then sharing good practice will always be an essential element to making improvements.
    Janie Law
    Mellow Parenting

  2. Pingback: We need better descriptions than ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’: the case of UK government ‘troubled families’ policy | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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