This article focuses attention on explaining and understanding state intervention into the lives of families deemed ‘troublesome’ with specific attention on the Troubled Families Programme. Launched in 2011, in part as a response to the London riots, the Troubled Families Programme represented an escalation and intensification of state intervention into the lives of families. Policy analyses have provided important perspectives on how we should explain and understand this government agenda as part of a process of neoliberal state crafting. This article offers a critical yet productive examination of these perspectives, arguing that their utility lies in how they can be employed, and therefore modified and adapted, in conjunction with studies of local practice which emphasise the messy realities of policy enactment and, with that, the possibility for contestation and challenge. Such an approach, based broadly on the tenets of critical realism, is founded on an alternative conception of state power, one that sees state power as having a more complex quality that is dependent on the agency of local actors.