Merging – for what? Bernard Davies asks


Bernard Davies responds to the series of mergers in the youth sector.

The recent BBC documentary on the 2008 collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland was a stark reminder of how crucial mergers are to the way the neo-liberal global economy operates. Far from ‘small is beautiful’, one of its bottom-lines seems to be: ‘the bigger the better’ – otherwise, as RBS’s earlier history showed, your business will be seen as insignificant and vulnerable to take-over. Once this gets itself beyond the stage of being the hunted, however, thoughts are then liable to turn increasingly to how to become the predator – to the point where, as in RBS’s case, the power this brings and the hubris this encourages make taking over others almost an end in itself.

All of which prompted me to wonder whether any of this kind of thinking has driven the youth work field’s rush to mergers over the past decade? After all, the BBC programme came within days of the latest such example: the announcement that the Centre for Youth Impact (CYI) – ‘a community of organisations that work together to progress thinking and practice around impact measurement in youth work and services for young people’- is in effect to take over Project Oracle. This was an organisation which had been describing its purpose as ‘supporting children and youth organisations and funders to produce, use and share high-quality evidence’.

Some of the voluntary youth sector’s earlier mergers have had much more direct implications for its role and what it offers. In April 2015 for example Ambition – previously the much more prosaically named National Association of Boys Clubs – joined up with the Confederation of Heads of Young People’s Services (CHYPS). Two years later, in March 2017, it also absorbed the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services (NCVYS), only for it to be taken over itself in April 2018 by UK Youth – the culmination of previous strained efforts at amalgamation going back at least to the 1940s.

Though clearly the crude profit-driven motivations of RBS-type mergers have not applied here, money has – often explicitly – been a factor, especially as state funding has become increasingly scarce. As early as 2012, a senior DfE official, speaking at a conference which NCVYS and UK Youth had helped organise, was urging youth organisations to consider mergers as a way of dealing with the growing demand that they ‘do more with less’. One rationale for the Ambition-CHYPS merger was that pooling resources would ‘… ensure services remained of a high standard despite funding cuts’. Chief Executive Anna Smee justified UK Youth’s take-over of Ambition in part on the grounds that it would ensure a ‘good combined balance sheet’, bringing together her own ‘cash-rich’ organisation with Ambition’s buildings; while Bethia McNeil, the Director of CYI, acknowledged that the long-term sustainability of both her organisation and Project Oracle would have been at stake if they hadn’t merged.

Other important rationales have also been offered, of course. Smee, for example, talked of the greater credibility of ‘one leading organisation that works across non-uniformed and, to some extent, uniformed youth organisations’. She highlighted, too, its ability ‘to amplify the voices of more young people and respond to their needs by forging wider partnerships to deliver joined up services in local communities’. McNeil expressed concern that ‘having two organisations that appear to be doing the same thing ran counter to our mission’.

But, as with all such developments, this reduction in the diversity of the sector surely throws up some deeper questions. Indeed, Baroness Stowell, the Chair of the Charity Commission, may have had some of these in mind when she recently accused some charities’ of ‘aggressive fundraising practices … (and) a single-minded pursuit of organisational growth’. How far, for example, has the reduction in the number of organisations with a ‘youth’ brief narrowed not only the variety of services on offer but also the range of critical perspectives on the work – a characteristic vital for a contested field like youth work? How far has ‘bigger is better’ ended up focusing the merged organisational gaze increasingly upwards on power- and fund-holders and policy-makers? What if any of this has resulted in those organisations becoming more distant from the day-to-day realties, priorities and needs of the clubs and projects they exist to serve? And, in the current rapidly changing social and economic conditions, where then will these grassroots bodies look for support to turn their hands-on understandings of what young people and their communities need into practical action?

Indeed, how far has any of this contributed to the need to reinvent an organisation called the National Association of Boys and Girls Clubs which says it is now reaching 100,000 young people through 1,000 affiliated clubs operating ‘in the most deprived areas’?

Bernard Davies’s book Austerity, Youth Policies and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in early 2019.

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