This paper presents one chapter from my PhD thesis, which uses feminist and queer approaches to consider the human rights impact of the collection and sharing of data in children’s services in England. My thesis draws on critical data studies to examine how the collection and use of data interact with systems of power: they shape who can know what about the world, and to what uses this knowledge can be put. This chapter examines one specific case study in existing programming in children’s social care: the ‘Troubled Families Programme.’ This programme, as I show, has as a key objective the increasing use of data by the local authorities. I will argue that the concept of ‘family’ in this data does not correspond with how the concept is defined in law, policy or practice.

I situate the collection and sharing of data within the history of information-gathering and decision-making in children’s services and with the political choices which have shaped service delivery and datafication. Classification and categorisation are used to define the ‘family’ as a unit of analysis, which enables the identification of the ‘problem family,’ and further its definition as implicitly outside of the norm. Through examining the ways in which data systems classify, categorise and stereotype individuals who are known to social services, I show how the expectation that individual and family lives are legible to computers is used to normalise certain forms of families, and stereotype those who do not comply as ‘troubled.’ I argue that the use of data in this programme encourages and naturalises simplistic, Aristotelian classification: both to categorise people into families, and in order to classify families into ‘troubled’ and (implicitly) ‘normal.’

Data collection and sharing is portrayed as actively beneficial for child welfare provision in the UK: however, in this paper, I argue that it promotes a simplistic view of what makes a good family. In place of families that work together, and state support that works to support them, the ‘Troubled Families Programme’ and its associated datafication project support an antiquated idea of what makes a good family, and promote work as the solution to all ills.