The ‘impactful’ youth organisation relies on self-improving youth workers and self-improving young people – ideal entrepreneurial, neoliberal subjects.
Continuing the debate on the youth impact agenda Tania de St Croix, a member of the IDYW steering group, has published a provocative, yet nuanced, incisive and widely-researched article, Youth work, performativity and the new youth impact agenda: getting paid for numbers? in the Journal of Education Policy. I’d be tempted to say it is robust and rigorous, if that tired phrase had not been done to death and lost all meaning. Its appearance is timely, coming only a few days before the Centre for Youth Impact’s gathering in London, Shaping the future of impact measurement. Her shot across the bows of the ‘impacteers’ is that their fixation threatens to marginalise further open access, process-centred youth work. A distinctive strength of her analysis is that it is grounded in her research project’s face-to-face engagement with part-time youth workers and volunteers, often a silent and silenced constituency.
A growing policy emphasis on measurement and outcomes has led to cultures of performativity, which are transforming what educators do and how they feel about themselves in relation to their work. While most analysis of performativity in education has focused on schools, this article investigates parallel developments in youth work. Youth work is a practice of informal education, in which young people learn and develop through activities, conversation and association. Its evaluation and monitoring have changed over the past two decades, as funding has become tied to targets and measureable outcomes. This article focuses on the English context, where government and third sector organisations are promoting a ‘youth impact agenda’, encouraging organisations to predefine and measure their outcomes. Drawing on data from interviews and focus groups with youth workers, the article argues that the current emphasis on impact risks further marginalising youth work at a time when this practice is already suffering from extensive spending cuts. The article concludes that we need to re-think the purposes and processes of evaluation and accountability – in youth work and beyond – in ways that genuinely value the perspectives of young people and grassroots practitioners.
A brief excerpt to whet the appetite:
Open youth work is particularly unsuited to ‘measurement’ because of its open-ended nature and its basis in peer group learning and informal education. Rather than outcomes being defined in advance, they emerge in negotiation with young people, and the focus is likely to shift and develop in relation to the specific individuals and groups attending, their needs and interests, and the changing social and political context in which they take place. The everyday activities of open youth work can even appear chaotic or purposeless to an outsider: perhaps a rowdy game of cards is in progress in a corner; another group is gathered around chatting and laughing; some people are painting a mural; others appear to be in deep and serious conversation by the kettle. These ‘everyday’ situations are supplemented with more structured elements introduced in negotiation with young people (perhaps an outdoor activities residential or making a film); ‘projects’ that are easier to report on. What is more difficult to describe, let alone measure, is the long-term relationship-based engagement that is at the core of the work, and without which specific projects would be less likely to happen; there is a significant focus in open youth work on process, on what happens ‘between the cracks’ and over time. It is this emphasis on and celebration of the informal and the open-ended that brings youth work into conflict with cultures of managerial accountability and performativity.
My one reservation is that Tania does not pursue what I think is a debilitating consequence of datafication, namely fabrication. Getting paid for by numbers leads to numbers being made up. This tendency is systemic. From my conversations, there is no reason to believe youth work is exempt from this malady. Perhaps I exaggerate and it would appear that this issue did not emerge explicitly within Tania’s research. Or perchance it remains suppressed.
In a piece, Threatening Youth Work, I put together with Marilyn Taylor the following exchange takes place.
I’m sure some people will be deeply offended by the implication that results, the need to compete are undermining the integrity of practice.
Without doubt, it is happening. To return to the overall argument made by Toby Lowe, his research into Outcomes-based Management reveals that wherever it is being used – in the Health Service, in Social Services, in Housing – ‘gaming’ occurs. To put it bluntly, the need to meet targets and outcomes leads managers and workers into manipulating and fabricating the data. As Toby is at pains to say this is not about maverick individuals, bad apples. ‘Gaming’, falsifying the figures, is a systemic dilemma. It is the consequence of a flawed approach to evaluating the purpose and quality of practice. As things stand youth work has invested its very soul into the Outcomes project. Whilst workers will talk off the record about malpractice, the cost of blowing the whistle would be enormous. It would be perceived as an act of treason.