Rod Norton responds to Bethia McNeil’s pertinent musings

At the end of last week, we asked for responses to Bethia McNeil’s musings upon key issues in evaluating our practice, Here they are again.

Thoughts From The Centre – to be found in the very useful Centre for Youth Impact Newsletter
This month, Bethia has been mostly thinking about…

What is the most meaningful language in which to talk about provision for young people? Does it make sense to talk about different ‘fields’ of practice? Or approaches? Or even practices? And what about ethics, values and principles? To what extent is shared learning held back by a lack of common language and/or understanding?
What is the relationship between ‘organisational’ or ‘practice improvement’ and improvement in outcomes for young people? Are there common areas of improvement, or is it more nuanced? How much is about systems and processes, and how much about relationships?
How can we value the act of measurement as much as the data that we are gathering? It feels like there are fractures on both sides of this issue at the moment: there is widespread antipathy towards the act of measurement and its impact on youth provision, and similarly a scepticism that the data gathered can tell us anything meaningful about our engagement with young people. Where to start?
What do we actually mean when we talk about ‘what works’? To what extent is this in the eye of the beholder?


Thus we are really pleased to post a reply from Rod Norton, a long-time youth worker and the former Chief Officer of a local authority Youth Service.


Tony’s call for people to engage in the debate with the Centre for Youth Impact got me thinking that his distinction between judgement and measurement is fundamental to the discussion. Let me explain ….

One way to look at youth work is that it is about helping young people to engage with, and change, the world about them. It is therefore about values, relationships, debate, discussion and above all about the active engagement of young people in their communities – it is a process, not an outcome. Predefined outcomes are therefore problematic as, from this point of view, the very purpose of youth work is to help young people gain the insights, skills and confidence necessary to change the world in ways that have meaning for them and not necessarily in ways that have meaning for workers or funders. Youth work therefore inhabits the realm of politics (in the widest sense of the word, we’re not talking about party politics here) and had its heyday under the Social Democracy of the post-war period where a commitment to process driven, user-focussed services was fairly mainstream. Evaluating youth work in this context involves making judgements about the work that are based upon transparent and contestable moral and political values. In the end, the fundamental question is whether the work advances the common good – which makes it political.

The type of society that has developed over the past thirty years is very different to Social Democracy and is based upon very different foundations. The neoliberalism which now dominates our lives doesn’t value politics, it values economic efficiency. For neoliberals, what matters is success in the marketplace and here politics, morals and values are largely irrelevant. Neoliberalism therefore has a desire to turn social activities, such as youth work, into products that can be traded in the market in order to make a profit, or at least to save money spent elsewhere. As products always have to be sold, the key driver for the work under neoliberalism becomes the wants and needs of the buyer or funder – the views of young people are secondary. And, of course, funders always want proof that they have received what they have paid for, so the emphasis of evaluation shifts to the measurement of outcomes and to the generation of savings or profits. Youth work thus risks becoming a value free commodity, delivering only funder defined outcomes. The natural tendency under these influences is for youth work to move away from an open access, user led and process-based format, towards more individualistic and formal models delivering predetermined behavioural change to passive young people.

Of course, these two models of evaluation based on political judgement and economic measurement have been contrasted here in very stark terms, whereas in reality the two usually merge into each other in some form of messy compromise. But, in the exchanges between Tony and Bethia over the last couple of years it is Tony who inhabits the world of political judgement whereas it is Bethia who, even though she valiantly struggles against their worst economistic excesses, is more influenced by models based on the measurement of economic efficiency. It is therefore Tony who is trying to move beyond neoliberalism whilst it is Bethia who is trying to find some kind of progressive accommodation with it.


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