When it comes to Impact, Bethia McNeil asks, ‘What Game are We Playing?’

Bethia McNeil
Bethia McNeil

Given our original Open Letter of early 2009 contained such assertions as “with Blair and Brown at the helm youth workers and managers have been coerced and cajoled into embracing the very antithesis of the Youth Work process: predictable and prescribed outcomes” it is hardly surprising that we have been cautious about the Centre for Youth Impact. Yet as the news of an extension of its precarious life is announced its Director, Bethia McNeil, to her great credit, catches us off guard with an open and insightful summary of the state of play re the impact agenda.

In its opening paragraphs she reflects,

Exploring the impact of youth work – and youth services more generally – has been the most contentious, hotly debated and provocative area in which I’ve ever worked. But why? What is it about impact that provokes these responses?

In exploring this question she makes a number of acute observations, including,

From the polite to the less polite, from “unsure of relevance” to “certain that it’s anathema and fatally undermining to youth work”, this is a seriously contested space, with conflicting values.

…we need to recognize that context for measurement in the youth sector, even more so that which is shared, is fraught and that much of the distrust is legitimate. The sense of historical discontinuity coupled to doubt from some and resistance from others sharpens the debate to cutting point. Those of us who are persuaded need to contend with those realities, understand our task and take note of the present limitations.

So, it’s no surprise that the youth sector has a difficult relationship with impact. For some, this is a game that has to be played, but played with cynicism and self-interest. For others, this is an agenda to keep at arm’s length, or even ignore – it is not part of the DNA of practice or organisational culture. For others, this is an assault on youth work and youth services that needs to be confronted and resisted.

She concludes,

If this relationship continues, we risk never really understanding the impact of youth work and youth services today.  We may become expert PR people, highly skilled fundraisers – some of us already are. We’re likely to become utterly cynical about the value of evidence and impact. We’ll contribute to an industry that can do quite a bit for the profile of individual organisations but less for youth work as collective practice. Fundamentally, we’ll do little to advance our understanding about what makes a difference in the lives of young people and why, and critically – how, we can do more of it. If we are committed to sharing the lessons of measurement, this is the first one we need to articulate, then we need to start doing a lot better.

I can but encourage you to read Bethia’s article in its entirety at Impact -whose game are we playing?

We have responded positively to Bethia’s succinct and honest appraisal. Obviously the Centre has its hands tied in many ways and is under the usual pressure to become self-financing. Its extension of financial support is only till March 2016 and its priorities are set. However it is looking to organise two open events in the New Year and we will be looking to be involved. Our feeling is that the broader notion of impact holds out the hope of catalysing a renewed self-critical dialogue between all parties – the committed, the pragmatists, the unconvinced and the dissenters. We will see, but good on Bethia for keeping the door ajar.

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