In truth we journeyed to the Centre for Youth Impact event in London last week in a state of some trepidation. Whilst the subject of the morning was ‘What does an outcomes-led approach have to offer youth work?’ at least three of the speakers were not from a youth work background and firmly from an outcomes-sympathetic position. In addition the other contributor, Rosie Ferguson was from an organisation, London Youth, wedded to the outcomes agenda. Were the odds stacked against our critique being given much of a hearing? Our anxiety was misplaced.
Bethia McNeil, the Director of the Centre set a welcoming and pluralist tone in her opening remarks, aided by the presence of Howard Williamson, who proceeded to chair in his usual, informal and inimitable style. She stressed her hope that the ensuing discussion would be both questioning and diverse.
As it was the two first two speakers did not address themselves directly to the issue of outcomes and youth work. Leon Feinstein, Director of Evidence, the Early Intervention
Foundation, spoke broadly about the importance of evidence if we are to influence government policy. In particular he focused on the significance of undertaking macro research, which sought to interrogate shifts and changes across time in respect of large samples of young people in identified categories. After documenting some of the successes produced by an outcomes approach to social issues, Michael Little, Co-Director, the Dartington Social Research Unit, expressed caution about where we are now up to. He pondered whether an insistence on outcomes was problematic in arenas, where the creation of relationships was paramount. Indeed he went so far as to suggest that the inappropriate use of outcomes corrupted process-led practice. It was a striking and unexpected intervention.
I was next in line and proffered a polemical rant about the harmful impact of the outcome agenda on youth work. I began by saying, “An outcomes-led approach is utterly at odds with a young person-centred, process-led youth work” and concluded,” By all means let’s chat about outcomes, but, by all means necessary, let’s resist being led by them.” I’ll post the substance of my contribution in the next few days for your comment and criticism.
Following some initial responses from the audience, which indicated a range of views, including some favouring our analysis, Rosie Ferguson, Chief Executive, London Youth, gave an impassioned defence of the positive impact of outcomes on the organisation and its work with young people. She made no apologies whatsoever in arguing for its pertinence and validity. Finally Derek Bardowell, Head of Programmes, Laureus Sport for Good Foundation confirmed his view that outcomes are crucial in deciding how and to whom funding should be made available. In his previous post at the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation he led the strategic direction of its education and learning strand and oversaw the distribution of grants worth £19 million.
Let me confess that, being immersed in the morning’s debate, I kept no notes. Thus even the above observations might be wide of the mark. I’m happy to be put straight. As far as the wider discussion went these are some scattered and provisional thoughts.
1. More participants than we imagined were far from signed up to an outcomes-led agenda. Certainly a number of managers saw themselves as insulating their workers from the data demands. Pragmatically they saw themselves as juggling to retain a range of provision, including open access opportunities, whilst delivering the targeted and outcomes-based programmes.
2. Building on this latter point it is clear that the targeted and outcomes-led work is programmatic. It is what Kaz Stuart and Lucy Maynard define as youth development, programmes of planned activities with goals and timelines. It is what they call non-formal education. It is not youth work as informal education.
3. Flowing out of this distinction it is obvious that there is much to explore and debate about differing forms of work with young people, what we mean by youth work. Classically at the event we heard a chorus of concern that there are few places nowadays where critical exchanges of opinion take place. We have to say that the often crude imposition upon workers by managers of the outcomes agenda in recent years has played a major part in stifling debate. Like being reminded of it or not there is little doubt that many youth workers, who questioned what was going on, were made redundant, didn’t get interviews, didn’t get posts that seemed up their street and so on.
4. Nevertheless the Centre for Youth Impact does seem committed to a qualitatively different exchange of opinion and analysis. Most tellingly it feels that the agenda is shifting away from a narrow focus on outcomes to a pluralist exploration of what constitutes evidence and impact. In this context our work on story-telling as an ingredient in this mix carries greater credence than before, when it was sometimes scorned as little more than anecdotal tittle-tattle.
As ever the proof will lie in practice. We welcome the Centre’s desire to maintain a momentum of exchange. For our part we are pledged to support and participate critically in any forthcoming events. Let the debate continue.
As I scribble the last words of this post I discover that the Centre has revamped its web site and a number of challenging pieces are to be found therein, not least 50 Shades Of Outcomes, which finds Karen Stuart criticising the dualistic thinking behind the place of outcomes in the youth sector. I suspect I might have to come up with a dialectical response! Bethia McNeil herself writes on the Centre’s initiative to develop new ways to understand the benefits of youth work in Reflecting on youth work’s impact. There’s other interesting stuff too so I need to do it justice in a separate post. I’m left with a nagging concern that the material on offer is somewhat one-sided in its ideological allegiance. Alas, though, this may be further evidence of my dualism.
Sounds like a productive exchange. In my own view, understanding our impact is critical to our own fine tuning of our work (whatever that work looks like on the ground). Then the problem is not outcomes per se. The problem is when we define outcomes in advance of co-creating the inputs. How do we know what we will achieve before we know what specifically we are doing together? If what we are doing is ‘youth work’ (that is, working alongside young people in ways that foster their own agency in deciding on those inputs/activities/programs/etc.) then knowing where we will end up a priori presents a specific and interesting challenge. Even more complicated is the notion that one can aggregate those outcomes across multiple participants to achieve an “average” gain in Y when clearly youth work on the ground never looks so neat or consistent. Because it is not defined as a “program” we cannot apply linear mathematics. If we move away from thinking that youth work as a linear calculation, one can then pursue other types of methods for capturing outcomes. The stories approach IDYWC promotes is a good one. I also am still waiting for some genius mathematician to help us with a relational calculus!
Dana – Thanks for these thoughts, which chime, I think, with where the debate is hopefully going. Funnily enough we were discussing at the weekend your notion of a relational calculus, which you proposed the other year in London. Sadly none of us were mathematicians, never mind geniuses of any kind! Thus we didn’t make much progress. As they always say more research needed.
We will figure it out! I am convinced someone will have an “AHA” moment!