We are delighted to receive this report from Tania on a recent Centre for Youth Impact event.
THINKING CRITICALLY ABOUT OUTCOMES
The outcomes agenda is increasingly prominent in all areas of education and public services, youth work included. Few practitioners would argue against the need for evaluation and critical reflection on practice; however, the notion of ‘outcomes’ is more challenging, particularly for those of us involved in open access youth work. The debate is very nicely summarised by a proponent of outcomes, Nick Axford from Dartington Social Research Unit, who recognises the tensions involved in attaching outcomes to a practice that avoids imposing an agenda.
In this context, there were plenty of stimulating conversations at the Centre for Youth Impact event on the 30th June, where practitioners, researchers, funders, managers, policy makers and others gathered to discuss measuring and evaluating the impact of work with young people. As both a researcher and a youth worker I found the event fascinating, and appreciated the opportunity for open and critical discussion. Although there was a celebratory element (as CYI comes to the end of its pilot period), it is encouraging that there was also room for debate and for perspectives that went against the grain. For example, the event included an excellent presentation by Jane Melvin, who asked what might be lost in translation between outcomes frameworks and youth work practice.
Perhaps the main omission was a critique of the terms under which this debate takes place. The ‘new outcomes agenda’ is wholly tied up with a wider market-based context, where organisations compete for a shrinking pot of funding – including from companies that promote an economic system that perpetuates inequalities. It feels as though the message from most youth service organisations, networks and commentators is: ‘this is the situation we are in – so let’s make the best of it’. I completely understand the desire to keep projects open and preserve jobs and organisations, so I am not entirely unsympathetic to this point of view. However, I do think it is essential to keep our critical faculties about us in relation to the context in which these changes are taking place.
Do we ask often enough, or clearly enough: why, and in whose interests, is the new outcomes agenda being promoted? And in this process, who – and what forms of work – are likely to lose out, or be left behind? Small youth organisations, and those practitioners and groups practising critical and open forms of youth work, need to speak up loud and clear about our reservations about the outcomes agenda. These reservations may make things complicated, but should be welcomed as a valid contribution to the debate. We are not just being an ‘awkward squad’ – we are working in a context of hugely reduced resources, where young people’s lives are lived under ever greater pressures, and where our jobs and our projects feel increasingly precarious. It is not unreasonable of us to be questionning and critical in relation to the contemporary demand for ‘data’ and outcomes, or the market systems that underpin these demands.
As one workshop at the CYI event proposed, it is not always a question of ‘outcomes focus or process driven’. Neither, perhaps, should we settle for the most obvious compromise – that all forms of youth work need to address both outcomes and process. There is, and needs to be, space for practices that are critical of the very notion of outcomes. Without idealising our IDYW story-telling workshops, my own commitment to them is because they are an attempt at a broader form of accountability, that emphasises critical reflection on practice, and interrogates or explores the process of youth work, as well as what happens before, during and after this process.
Tania de St Croix