So where is the youth work? The case of UK Youth – Bernard Davies wonders



uk youth

Last month UK Youth announced that its new Chief Executive is to be Anna Smee. I write this knowing nothing about her personally and wouldn’t wish to comment on that if I did. What does seem worthy of a little reflection, though, are messages about UK Youth embedded in this appointment and their publicly expressed rationale for it. What do these say about the values now shaping one of our leading national youth organisations? About how it now defines its priorities and directions of travel? And about where it stands in relation to the wider ideologies which have driven youth policies over the past decade or more and left so many young people abandoned and so many youth services in tatters?

In making its announcement UK Youth highlighted two examples of Ms Smee’s work experience: her current role at the Young Foundation and her previous one as Managing Director of Hundred Consulting. The former, according to the Young Foundation website, involves leading its Venture Team of ‘over 20 professionals drawn from social, government, financial and consulting backgrounds’ whose focus is on ‘identifying social ventures with the capacity to scale across the UK (and in some cases internationally) and mobilising capital to invest in these organisations in order to generate better social outcomes for a greater number of people’. At Hundred Consulting Ms Smee worked ‘with private equity and venture capital firms (and the companies in their portfolios) to shape their businesses and create lasting competitive advantage’. Though the UK Youth announcement did not mention this, it was clearly also important to the Young Foundation that she ‘started her career in finance at Ernst&Young and worked for Dresdner Kleinwort, Aviva and Suncorp Bank in Australia, prior to becoming a strategy consultant’.

This career background led UK Youth’s Youth Chair to conclude that its new Chief Executive has ‘the expertise … to provide exciting new leadership’ for the organisation. What in general this suggests is that, in making the appointment, UK Youth started from a conception of ‘management’ common in the business world. This sees it as comprising a set of skills transferable to other organisations regardless of their primary task – in this case, it appears, from managing money for some of the wealthiest people and institutions in the world to developing and managing services for people who may be amongst its poorest and most vulnerable. Given the track record of the business world, and in particular its financial institutions, up to and since the 2007-08 crash, not least in how it treated and continues to treat the people it employs and significant numbers of its customers, it is by no means clear why such experience should be seen as a, perhaps the, guiding principle for selecting someone to lead an organisation like UK Youth.

More specific questions need also to be asked about those guiding principles, however. After all, by so publicly embracing the world of international finance from which Ms Smee has been recruited, is not UK Youth in danger of being seen to be embracing the economic and political values and assumptions which underpin and indeed drive it? I know that that ideology is now so dominant that our politicians (whatever their party label), our media, the chief executives of many national voluntary organisations and even often the man and woman in the street seem to treat it as the only option. I know, too, that those of us who seek to stand aside from it, who suggest there may be other ways of framing our key economic and political questions – other ways of defining our problems and possible solutions to them – are regarded as romantics, even dinosaurs.

And yet, even when ideas and values are as dominant as those of the business world are today, they are not the only way to go.. Embracing them remains a choice – for individuals for sure, but also and more importantly in this context for public service organisations. And, as part of the ‘civil’ element of our democratic society where people freely come together to pursue a cause or provide a service, organisations calling themselves ‘voluntary’ have a special in-built responsibility to make such choices both critically and independently of the ‘given’ expectations around them.

So what are the choices here? For human beings living together there are of course many. However, there is one which, again in this context, I see as crucial. On the one hand, there is the option of starting from Mrs Thatcher’s uncompromising dictum that there is no such thing as society and that therefore individuals and families (including of course young people) need to be trained to be but also (as important) to see themselves as self-reliant, aspiring above all for themselves and able to compete successfully in a winner-takes-all, zero-sum society. An alternative choice remains however: to struggle to build supportive relationships amongst that society’s citizens as citizens, recognising our inter-dependence and therefore seeking to nurture mutuality and collective ways of dealing with the challenges this poses.

Such a choice is not of course free-floating. Within it is embedded an analysis of where we are starting in meeting those challenges. Implicit in much of the advocacy of this market-shaped, business-oriented dominant ideology is an assumption that, if there are unequal starting points for achieving our individual aspirations in an inevitably competitive world, then it is for the individual to correct those imbalances – to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps without looking to or expecting help from the shared resources and institutions of our society. Little patience here, then, for arguments about – or even, indeed, evidence on – structural inequalities determined by your class origins, your gender, the colour of your skin, your sexual orientation – or indeed (increasingly a reality since the financial crash) your youth.

I look forward, not only to hearing where UK Youth more broadly stands in relation to such choices, but also to seeing how its actions under Ms Smee’s leadership make its words real. Where will it stand for example – and stand publicly – if (when?) the next government insists that young people demonstrate their self-reliance by living without a right to housing benefit? And, most immediately and directly relevant of all for an organisation which for most of its history had ‘youth clubs’ in its title: when will it say – again publicly – ‘No more fancy national schemes: just save our local Youth Services’?

In other words, where does youth work now rate in UK Youth’s order of priorities?

Bernard Davies

2 Oct 2014

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