Day 2 of 2018’s Youth Work Week article series brings Bethia McNeil, Chief Exec of the Centre for Youth Impact and policy / research enthusiast, and her thoughts on the conceptual challenges of measuring impact and value in the youth sector.
Thinking about the value of youth work
Writing a half-decent, useful blog on the value of youth work, during Youth Work Week, is quite challenging. Not because I don’t have much to say, but because so many words have been said before on this topic, and over so many years.
And so I’m not going to start on the subject of the value of youth work, but rather on the concept of value itself. In particular, I’m going to focus on how value relates to impact, experiences and politics.
As the Director of the Centre for Youth Impact, it is no surprise that I spend a lot of time thinking about the impact of youth work. But ‘impact’ and ‘value’ are not the same thing. My experience is that perspectives on impact and value (and this could apply to many parts of the social sector, not just youth work) ebb and flow over time, sometimes converging, sometime diverging.
Impact is the far harder nut to crack. Value will to some extent always have a strong subjective, perceptual dimension. We are more likely to accept that value is in the eye of the beholder. Impact, on the other hand, tends to be seen as objective – something that evidence can demonstrate or prove, beyond the personal expression of value.
But the political economy of evidence means that what counts as evidence of impact can and does shift over time. It is intimately connected to the political climate and context. At present, we have a particular policy context that emphasises the reduction or avoidance of cost to the state, and applies a ‘what works’ lens to its thinking. And so, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where ‘impact’ and ‘value’ are two very different things.
Demonstrating or proving impact also rests on applying scientific framing to very human processes: relationships. In and of itself, this is not wrong – we cannot and should not argue that youth work is magic or somehow unknowable – but we need to create space to ‘value’ and take account of other forms of evidence.
I’ve also spoken before on my belief that the quest for the holy grail – proof of youth work’s impact – can distract us from thinking more about value. If we spend all our time attempting to build the strongest case possible about what might happen in the future, we risk overlooking what is happening in our more immediate sphere of influence.
So how might we think about value? My sense is that the value of youth work can be understood through the experiences of young people and the qualities of good youth work practice (note that this is far from a new idea!). These are also the ‘active ingredients’ of impact. To understand impact, we have to understand the active ingredients and how they ‘activate’ one another. The experiences of young people and the qualities of good youth work should of course be intertwined. The experience of young people being challenged and challenging in a safe and supportive space, for example, is one of the core qualities of youth work. Similarly, the experience of a young person knowing that there is an adult in whom they can trust and who trusts them, who keeps the door open in that relationship, is fundamental in the youth work process.
And we know a lot about these things. Returning to my initial point about many words having already been spoken: experiences and qualities are aspects that both young people and youth workers talk about, and which have been captured repeatedly through research.
Collectively, I think we know a lot about the value of youth work. We also know that what makes youth work valuable may well be its values.
However, none of this means we can be complacent. Youth Work Week, as a celebration of all that is powerful and transformative about youth work, should also be a call to action to learn, reflect and develop youth work into the future. We do need to understand more about how ‘active ingredients’ work together, and how value connects to impact, so that we can build stronger insight. We need to do this for ourselves, rather than for those we hope to encourage to think differently about investing in youth work. Doing this would also mean that we can bring our line of sight back to how we relate to one another and to young people, and the world around us. And that’s youth work.
– Bethia McNeil