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What’s wrong with measuring youth work?

Tania de St Croix

02 Jul, 2018


Dr Tania de St Croix examines recent shifts in youth work 'impact' assessment, exploring why they've emerged and what problems they might pose.


If you work for an organisation that receives funding from government bodies, charitable trusts, or bodies such as the National Lottery, you will be expected to provide ‘evidence’ of the impact of your work. In the past we might have sent our funders a written report, numbers taking part, photographs and examples of young people’s work, and perhaps a case study or two. Maybe our funders came along to an occasional open evening, or visited a session. Today, in contrast, youth work projects are increasingly asked to predefine specific outcomes (such as confidence, resilience or well-being) and ‘prove’ our impact against these outcomes. This change can be seen as a new youth impact agenda – in other words, a broad consensus between government and influential non-governmental organisations that the youth sector needs to improve its evidence through the quantifiable measurement of young people’s progress against outcomes.

Rethinking Impact

Our new research project, ‘Rethinking Impact, Evaluation and Accountability in Youth Work’ seeks to understand this new approach to evaluation, why it has come about, its advantages and disadvantages, and how it is experienced in grassroots settings. We want to find out what forms of evaluation are currently used in youth work settings, and how these approaches are experienced by young people and practitioners. This is important because evaluation does not simply reflect what we do – it also shapes and influences our work, particularly when funding is attached.

New approaches to youth impact tend to prioritise quantifiable measurement over qualitative evidence; pre-planned outcomes over those that emerge over time; and individual change over a wider contribution in a neighbourhood or community. While a renewed focus on evaluation is welcome, there are worrying consequences associated with this newly dominant approach to impact, particularly in relation to the most open and informal approaches to youth work: open access settings, drop-ins, and projects that are genuinely led by young people. These consequences are:

  • Organisational, e.g. an incentive to replace long-term, community-based and informal approaches that are difficult to ‘measure’, with structured projects that have a beginning and an end;
  • Ethical, e.g. questionnaires at the beginning and end of a project might ask questions seen as intrusive, or could feel too formal; this could dissuade the most marginalised young people from taking part; and,
  • Political, e.g. enabling youth work to become a vehicle of investment, where its outcomes can be quantified and therefore monetised.

It is vital to situate these changes in the wider political and economic context of neoliberalism – the global dominance of big business, the marketisation of public services, and a way of seeing ourselves (and young people) as entrepreneurs of our own lives. While some of the organisations promoting youth impact may not see themselves as neoliberal, the proliferation of tools and processes that ‘measure’ youth work’s impact clearly make it more possible to compare one provider with another, and to see youth work spending as an ‘investment’.

So what?

What does all of this mean for youth workers in a youth club on a cold Thursday evening? What does it mean for managers and trustees, doing their best to raise funds to make a difference in young people’s lives? As the research progresses, we will share (with due acknowledgement) approaches to impact and evaluation that are congruent with the practices and processes of open youth work – with funders and policy-makers as well as with practitioners and organisations. For now, the following suggestions may be useful in thinking about these issues:

  • Reflect on current approaches to evaluating youth work. Include informal and formal approaches, e.g. session evaluations with colleagues, written reports, and discussions with young people (both impromptu and planned). Are some approaches more meaningful and relevant than others? Can we speak up for the value of these approaches when meeting funders?
  • Be prepared to articulate the benefits of youth work. We may need to be able to account for this in different ways to different people – but our rationale should be consistent and ethical. For example, we should avoid labelling or discussing young people and their families and communities in ways they would not be comfortable with.
  • Ask young people how they feel about current evaluation tools and processes. Consider whether there are groups that engage more rarely or not at all – and how certain approaches to evaluation might encourage or dissuade particular groups of young people.
  • Look into practice-centred and collective approaches such as In Defence of Youth Work’s story-telling workshops: see story-tellinginyouthwork.com

For further information:

Rethinking Impact, Evaluation and Accountability in Youth Work webpage.

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