Accommodation and Resistance : The Voluntary Youth Sector and Youth Services Management

Faced by the powerful there is always the dilemma of whether to accommodate or resist. Or to put it another way  there is forever the question of whether we keep our heads down and do as they tell us or whether we stand up for our principles and at the very least challenge their orders. One of the earliest historical accounts of this contradiction set out in stark terms can be found in Thucydides, writing in 431 B.C.

Melos was a small, relatively sparsely populated island in the Cretan Sea. It was surrounded by several other smaller islands which were members of the Athenian Empire which extended its power broadly over the Cretan Sea. Officially, Melos was allied with Athens’ enemy in the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans , because Melos was originally a Spartan colony. The Melians, however, remained neutral during the Peloponnesian War, and did not send arms, men, or boats to their Spartan kin. The Athenians arrived off the coast and demanded that the Melians become a tribute state of the Athenian Empire, but the Melians asked to remain neutral.

In the dialogue between the Athenians and Melians, which followed, we find the following exchanges:


It may be in your interest to be our masters, but how can it be in ours to be your slaves?


To you the gain will be that by submission you will avert the worst and we shall be all the richer for your preservation.


How base and cowardly would it be in us, who wish to retain our freedom, not to do and suffer anything rather than be your slaves.


Not so, if you calmly reflect: for you are not fighting against equals to whom you cannot yield without disgrace, but you are taking counsel whether or no you shall resist an overwhelming force. The question is not one of honour but of prudence.


If we yield now, all is over; but if we fight, there is yet a hope that we may stand upright.


But do you not see that the path of expediency is safe, whereas justice and honour involve danger in practice. To maintain your rights against equals, to be politic with superiors, and to be moderate towards inferiors is the path of safety.

In the event the Melians resisted and for their pains their menfolk were slaughtered, their women and children taken into slavery. Yet in the Athenian thirst for power, the disregard for justice and human rights Thucydides marked the source of Athenian degeneration. In this sense the moral of my melodramatic tale is not that we should obey the powerful, but that resistance was and is vital if we are to defend and extend our gains.

But what has this to do with Defending Youth Work and the roles of the Voluntary Sector and Youth Services management!?  Over the centuries since Thucydides the notions of accommodation and resistance have been rendered more sophisticated and nuanced. Clearly there are tactical considerations.  On the one hand to  resist and be wiped out seems suicidal. On the other to accommodate willingly or unwillingly without question is to abandon our integrity. In our present case we do not face a life or death scenario. The situation is deeply worrying, but the odds are not all stacked in favour of those, who wish either to bureaucratise and/or privatise Youth Work.  Increasingly there are doubters across the political spectrum. The argument for a voluntary, person-centred, open-ended relationship with young people is understood more widely – outside of Youth Work – than perhaps we imagine.

It is in this context that the uncritical response of  the larger voluntary  organisations, exemplified by some Councils for Voluntary Youth Service and the shattering silence of  many Youth Services managers is deeply disappointing.  As far as the former is concerned Matthew Scott begins his criticism of ‘ Big Society: principled protest or vested interest’ by suggesting,

The default position in much of the larger charity sector seems to veer between falsely claiming it has always and forever championed local unpaid community action, or a visceral resentment that there in no longer any money to be had as preferred arm’s length contractors of the state.

This itself is interesting and contradictory as the relatively recent  emergence of commissioning within Youth Work seems to mean that some local CVYS organisations are eager to become contractors and run the remnants of local authority work with young people.

While Andy Benson of the National Coalition for Independent Action comments,

The history of the last 10 years is that the ‘community sector’ has been largely unsupported but greatly patronised by politicians and the ‘capacity building’ brigade, whilst the ‘voluntary sector’ has been made ‘fit for purpose’ by the ‘world class commissioning’ brigade. In doing so he draws our attention to the Independent Action report on ‘Commissioning in West Sussex’.

The local state and voluntary action in West Sussex

As for Youth Services management the latest e-bulletin from CHYPS [Confederation of Heads of Young People’s Services] , reporting on the Breakfast with the Minister oozes neutrality.  Everything is reported and nothing is said.  A critical shadow never clouds its complacency. For example,

He [the Minister] ended by focusing on Local Authority Youth Services, saying that some were good and others not (and accepted that this was also the case with voluntary sector services). He wanted Local Authorities to be imaginative and open to new ideas and ways of working. He gave an example where he saw the creation of a local federation of youth organisations (statutory and voluntary sectors) in an area to which the whole responsibility for youth services could be transferred. There wouldn’t be legislation on this, but would see it being an organic process.

Having been in my time a Chief Youth and Community Officer, who witnessed a million pound cut in the budget in Wigan back in 1994, I have some idea of the stress and strain of being a manager. Indeed I’m still haunted by my mistakes and shortcomings during that traumatic period. However I didn’t see it as my job to tell politicians simply what they wanted to hear. It was also my responsibility to question the Council’s policy, its impact on youth workers and young people. Doing so was not heroic. It was necessary and by and large did me no real harm in my employer’s eyes.  There is far too much self-censorship going on in Youth Work today. The myth peddled is that any voices of dissent are harmful. Indeed in one authority this very bland CHYPS bulletin is being circulated as final proof that management’s imposition under New Labour of  the discourse of  ‘targeted work; high performance; value for money; flexibility; partnership and commissioning’ will now bear fruit under the Coalition. Evidently it is argued that  this prospect should silence at last the doubters within the ranks of workers in the field. And there we were thinking that Youth Work is  founded on a commitment to critical reflection and indeed doubt. So, given our opening,  to return to the best rather than the worst of the Athenian tradition, we need to remember Socrates and his sense of truth as provisional.  The idea that there is no alternative to the neo-liberal propaganda of the last three decades is farcical. Sadly we won’t hold our breath, but it would be encouraging to hear some caution and criticism from within the ranks of the Heads of Services for Young People. We know that there are senior managers, who share our concerns. It is time to speak up.

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