We don’t need no thought control

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Photo of Bernard DaviesAs analysis of the riots replaces knee-jerk condemnation of young people, Bernard Davies reflects on NCIA’s research about voluntary sector youth work.

Four case studies show how local organisations are striving to continue community-based youth work despite pressure to deliver the latest policy initiative or be subservient to contractors.

The case studies show how government policies and local authority practices have entrenched unequal relationships between young people, youth workers, managers and local authority officers.

But they also show how trustees, managers, youth workers and young people have used a range of tactics to guard the space that young people need to express their individual and collective potential as they find their place in society. They have fought for democratic decision making and meaningful evaluation of what works and what doesn’t as vital components of meeting local needs.

  • From partner to butler describes the tactics a youth council used to keep its voice when a council tried to limit young people’s local democratic participation.
  • From merger to managerialism reflects on lessons learned when a community-based youth work organisation merged with a larger hierarchical organisation.
  • Localism in action? shows how the process of bidding for a contract to run a local estate’s youth provision made improper demands on a community organisation.
  • Short-term funding to meet external targets details a manager’s efforts to resist ticking boxes for the youth service and instead evaluate what worked and what didn’t in a youth project that accepted crime and anti-social behaviour funding.

The wrong policies

The four case studies describe the effects of government policies characterised by top-down instructions. This hierarchical approach was prevalent under New Labour and is now being exacerbated by the coalition government – the ‘big society’ project is part of a privatisation agenda that takes as given that, as a condition of funding, voluntary organisations will deliver what the government says people should get rather than upholding the voluntary and community sector’s role to define what is required to meet local needs.

Here are some of the policy assumptions that show up in the case studies: youth provision previously run by the local authority will be contracted out; ‘positive activities’ will be available to prevent ‘anti-social behaviour’ on Friday and Saturday evenings; local authorities will incorporate ‘young people’s voice’ into their own decision-making processes.

Outside pressures can of course have positive effects – having a say in local decisions is what many young people want and need. However, the pressures exerted on the case study projects were often damaging to young people. Something has gone seriously wrong when a homeless young person knocks on a youth worker’s door on a Sunday night and is presented with a ‘record of learning’ form to sign; and when young people’s independent forums for influencing policy-making are overridden by forums set up by the local council. Importantly, many top-down policies focus on what young people cannot do rather than what they can – on their deficits rather than their strengths – which is at odds with the values, purposes and operating principles of the case study organisations.

Another common thread is the managerialism that the projects experienced. Procedures which were crudely transposed from the private sector operated in oppressive ways for youth workers, managers and local authority officers, some of whom obviously felt they had no choice but to cajole or bully local organisations into going along with inappropriate monitoring or reporting.

Despite rhetoric about ‘localism’ and ‘intelligent commissioning’ the policy situation for local youth work will continue to be difficult under the coalition government. Money will talk more powerfully than ever as it gets scarcer under the ‘austerity programme’. In a funding environment dominated by commissioning processes in which for-profit businesses are big players, the projects featured in the case studies are likely to be confronted with even sharper dilemmas and tighter constraints on their freedom of action and be at even greater disadvantage in seeking funding.

So what can be done?

A common characteristic of all four case studies is that no one took what happened to them and their organisations lying down. In very different circumstances and ways they fought back – not just against the specific policies that were affecting them but also in defence of their right as independent voluntary groups to decide for themselves what they did, why and how.

Often this required consciousness about the personal and inter-personal dimensions of the struggles: ‘think twice and then again’ and ‘listen to your instincts’ are two pieces of advice that stand out. Individuals thought about who they were, what they valued and what kind of relationship they wanted with funders and the local authority.

Individual thinking was helped by searching collective reflection: calling a staff meeting to consider a team’s motives in deciding whether to take the money; not being afraid to consider saying no to money; listening to and working openly with like-minded colleagues and trusted local people and winning esteem in the local neighbourhood. An important element was not taking anything for granted, backed up by a determination to get things in writing – if necessary following up verbal assurances with the project’s own account of what had been discussed and decided.

The projects’ carefully measured responses also relied heavily on the collective identities and structures they had developed, however informal these might be. This included drawing as fully as possible on the expertise within the organisations and, where this wasn’t available, seeking it from outside. This in turn entailed – where feasible – short-term investment of precious resources in order to prevent in the long-term paying a higher price either financially or in lost freedom of action. And it certainly included, again where feasible, working in close collaboration with the young people intended to be the beneficiaries of the work and with relevant local groups.

The wider implications

For these four small case study projects, defence of independence needed a wider perspective – a  political set of strategies which made sure that the individuals and organisations were able to consider, and where possible confront, unequal power relationships.

NCIA has found that there is a tendency to think ‘this is the only game in town’ when it comes to responding to damaging policies and practices, but the case study organisations were able to defend their own reasons for doing the work. An ongoing and explicit restatement of their purpose was central to this. Once such firm parameters have been set out, choices can then be made about which battles to fight, which alternatives to consider and what compromises it is tactically possible or necessary to make.

Bernard Davies is a director of NCIA and is involved in the In Defence of Youth Work Campaign.

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