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?

judgement

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.

 

Bethia McNeil muses on the dilemmas of naming and measuring youth work

cyi-new-logo

Our relationship with the Centre for Youth Impact [CYI] remains inevitably delicate. We are deeply cautious about the consequences of its perspective for a process-led, person-centred youth work practice. However, we have sought to be in critical dialogue with CYI and this desire has been reciprocated. Hence it’s important to engage with Bethia McNeil’s New Year’s musings on what she sees as key issues in the ongoing debate about the relationship between something we call youth work and the heterogeneous layer of humanity we call young people.

Thoughts From The Centre – to be found in the very useful CYI 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?

 

If I can get my act together I’ll scribble some sort of response to these pertinent questions in the coming week, but it would be brilliant if other folk contributed.

Newsletter
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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.