Youth voice: questioning the possibilities – and constraints
In a previous blog post  I referred briefly to the Instagram website ‘Involved’ – ‘a government consultation tool for young people designed by young people’, offered as ‘the first stop for young people to be engaged, informed, and empowered to speak up and out’. Managed by the British Youth Council (BYC) – by-line: ‘We empower young people across the UK to have a say and be heard’ – the site invites inputs into government policy-making via ‘opinion polls and cross-government consultations on the latest hot topics’. By early November it had over 1150 followers and had fed back to ministers on youth violence, volunteering and ‘youth services’.
As I seem to keep repeating in these posts – and why not? Why shouldn’t young people be able to tell those in power what they think, using technologies they’re most familiar with? Why mightn’t that be especially useful and needed at a time when the pandemic’s impacts on their generation are proving so damaging, directly and indirectly, long-term as well as immediately?
Nonetheless, some critical digging does seem in order, not least because of the complexities and contradictions built into a practice which, to be effective, needs to challenge some of our society’s entrenched power balances. What follows starts by outlining government efforts since the late-1990s to tap into what already in 2012 I felt the need to label ‘the fashionable catchphrase ‘youth voice’. It then considers the challenges of converting the ‘youth voice’ aspirations into practice both in the informal self-chosen settings of open youth work and via more formal structures. Finally, in search of the boundaries embedded within them, it interrogates three of the terms most frequently used to describe and indeed explain this practice – ‘consultation’, ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’.
The emergence of ‘Youth voice’
A youth work pre-history
Youth work has laid claim to such a practice from its earliest days. In 1890, for example, girls’ club ‘pioneer’ Maud Stanley described a girls’ committee as ‘a very important element in a girls’ club’. By 1908 Charles Russell and Lilian Rigby, writing about boys’ club work, were even contemplating the possibility of ‘… self-government by the members…’  Once it got involved, the state continued to endorse such goals – for example in the government circulars which created the Service of Youth in 1939/1940 and in the key review reports of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. 
Questions about how far these aspirations were being turned into action were always around, however, and in 1991 a report on the management of the Youth Service in England brought them to the surface. Describing ‘the participation of young people in the planning process … a neglected aspect’ of the Service’s work, this concluded that ‘few LEAs seem to have made much progress in achieving it’.
New Labour ‘modernisation’
Though drawing little on traditional forms of open youth work, throughout its years in office New Labour looked for ways of filling this gap. In 2000, for example, it created the UK Youth Parliament which today – by-line: ‘Making Our Mark’ – aims to ‘provide opportunities for 11-18 year olds to use their elected voice to bring about social change through meaningful representation and campaigning’. In this period, too, Labour supported the efforts of a consortium of youth organisations to develop a Youth Bank and the launch of the Local Government Association and NYA’s ‘Hear by Right’ campaign for opening up local government decision-making to young people.
By 2005-06, shaped by its Youth Matters papers, Labour’s youth policies were referring frequently to the voice of young people. The second of these included proposals for a Youth Opportunity and a Youth Capital Fund – initiatives which, though not problem-free, were more materially grounded than many in the past. By giving young people a say in how an initial two-year ringfenced funding of £150 million was to be spent on local youth facilities, they adopted an approach which a 2008 National Foundation for Educational Research report judged ‘a success’, with ‘nearly all local authorities consider(ing) that the young people had done a good job in administering the Funds’.
Post-2010: the rhetoric – and the realities
In its own (also much-hyped but now largely forgotten) youth policy paper, Positive for Youth, published in 2011, the Coalition government explicitly recognised young people’s ‘right to have their views taken into account in all decisions that affect their lives’. In a sub-section headed ‘Promoting youth voice’, it pledged itself to ‘… empowering young people … to inspect and report on local services and … help “youth proof” government policy’. At a ‘youth summit’ in March 2011, the children and youth minister Tim Loughton announced that this would be done by working with the Youth Parliament, BYC and the (now defunct) National Council of Voluntary Youth Services to ‘establish a national scrutiny group of representative young people’.
The Youth Parliament and BYC continued to provide important routes for the government’s efforts to fulfil these kinds of commitment. Positive for Youth, for example promised to
…protect the distinct identity of the UK Youth Parliament reflecting its unique role in mirroring the UK’s national democratic processes, contribution to democratic civic engagement and relationship with Parliament itself.
For the period 2011-13 BYC was allocated £850,000 of government money; continuation of this funding was confirmed in 2016; and in March 2019 it was awarded a one-year £170,000 contract to lead in the creation of ‘a Youth Steering Group’, ‘a Young Inspectors Group’ and ‘Digital Youth engagement’. With the latter presumably implemented through the Instagram ‘Involved’ website, in August the current youth minister, Baroness Barran, reported that, in response to the pandemic, she had met with the Youth Steering Group to discuss financial support for young people. She also reiterated the government’s wider ‘youth voice’ commitments to continue ‘… listening carefully to young people’, to ‘want(ing) the next generation to be actively at the heart of our decision-making’, and (my emphasis added!), to ‘allow them to contribute to “building back” better’.
This on-going rhetoric on the role of ‘youth voice’ has, however, to be seen in the context of the harder realities of some major youth policies over this decade and how they have been developed and implemented:
- Immediately it came to power in 2010 – without consultation, least of all with young people – the government cut the Youth Capital Fund’s budget by half. 
- Against the background of huge reductions in the Treasury’s financial support for local authorities, it subsequently removed the ringfencing of the Youth Capital and the Youth Opportunity Funds, leading within months to both programmes being wound up. 
- Despite young people’s opposition, in 2013 Education Secretary Michael Gove insisted that responsibility for youth policy be moved out of his department.
- More widely – and again without any consultation – Gove also pushed through radical reforms of the content and format of the GCSE and A level examinations which have had such stressful consequences for so many young people. 
- And then in August this year came the exam-grading fiasco …
‘Youth voice’, it seems, is fine – as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the dominant ideological and political priorities determining government policies.
Converting ‘voice’ into practice
From the formal…
The Cooper and Lybrand Deloitte report quoted earlier pointed to one of the challenges which governments face anyway when they set out to turn their often ambitious-sounding ‘youth voice’ intentions into action:
On the one hand, it (participation) is a process by which the views of young people are gathered and allowed to exert some influence…; on the other, it is a learning experience for the individuals involved … These two aspects are usually in harmony but can sometimes be in conflict. For example, there may be a tension between seeking representatives who will be the most able advocates for young people and representatives for whom the learning experience would be most beneficial.
This dilemma runs alongside – indeed intersects with – another: the assumption often built into conceptions of ‘participation’ that the (perhaps only) way to achieve it is via representative structures relying on some form of electoral process. In some situations these have, of course, proved valuable. Yet the Cooper and Lybrand Deloitte Report also concluded that as ‘formal structures of this kind have rarely proved effective in involving young people in strategic planning’ ‘the emphasis should be on efforts to introduce more informal methods’.The case study below seeks to illustrate the challenges posed by too taken-for-granted a resort to more ‘formal structures’.
‘Participation’ through formal structures: a cautionary tale?
Some years ago, three long-time ‘users’ were co-opted as trustees onto a youth organisation’s Board. All were in their mid- to late teens and clearly committed to the organisation. Having expressed an interest in the role, they had particularly recommended themselves for it by their willingness in groups and to the workers they knew to speak their minds about what they thought the organisation was and wasn’t doing, or not doing as well as it should.
The ‘milieu’ of the Board meetings was for them, however, a new one. Behaviour there was shaped not only by its formal procedures but also by more informal and so largely unarticulated ‘rules’ developed over many years. For any new arriva into this setting, never mind someone for whom a ‘Board meeting’ might be an entirely new experience, finding and expressing their ‘voice’ could thus be far from straightforward.
Taking lessons from this false start, the organisation subsequently offered both individual and group induction sessions and on-going support to any young person showing an interest in becoming a trustee
Today, it is true, the formalised ways in which the ‘youth voice’ can express itself have become more diverse and flexible, particularly with the adoption of social media forms of communication and organising. Nonetheless, in the current ‘youth voice’ context, some questions on its ‘how’ and its ‘why’ still seem worth considering – such as:
- Who – which sections or segments of the youth population – are managing to get their voice included in these outlets and in particular in ones which get the attention of policy-makers, the media and other powerful opinion-shapers?
- When it does manage to penetrate those arenas, what then happens to what that ‘voice’ is communicating? How able – how well prepared and positioned – are those young people to get it converted into actions which genuinely respond to what they’re asking for?
- Even when (if) such penetration does occur, in light of the government rhetoric-vs-realities examples quoted above, how influential will such ‘youth-proofing’ be on the policy-making processes which most affect them when this hits the barriers of entrenched government financial, political and other priorities?
to the informal
So what, then, about those more informal approaches and responses advocated by the Cooper and Lybrand Deloitte report? Here, even when the state is ‘the provider’, open youth work may have some relevant messages to offer. After all, one of the defining features of the settings in which this takes place is that, because young people choose to engage (or not), they bring to these, and retain within them, a significant degree of power. Indeed, I would suggest, for youth workers the unavoidable question is not whether but how ‘participation’ should happen and to what ends.
In the 2015 update of my youth work ‘manifesto’, for example, I proposed that for youth workers:… such (participation) goals are not incidental luxuries – the icing on the cake – while implementing them is often not achieved through committees or other formal machinery. Rather, they are pursued through the workers’ everyday routine exchanges with the young people who turn up; exchanges whose built-in power balances mean that, from day one and throughout, they have to be shaped by ‘participatory’ principles and the mutuality of respect and influence which these assume. 
Even for youth workers, however, this still raises further questions. Such as, via those self-chosen youth work relationships, how to tap into and then support young people’s more organised and especially collective use of that power? And beyond that, too – and perhaps even more challenging: how to bring together and mobilise less formalised, bottom-up expressions of the ‘youth voice’ in settings which are not open access, which may be (even) more bureaucratic, and where the power balances are pre-set in more rigid and excluding ways? 
Setting boundaries for ‘consultation’, ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’
Finally, it seems relevant here, too, to unpick three of the terms used most often to describe this practice in order to identify the boundaries which, again usually unarticulated, lurk within them.
Here, perhaps, the boundary is the most upfront: that the views/preferences/choices of those most likely to be affected by a decision or action will be gathered before this is taken or implemented. Such a process is of course often both essential and helpful. In itself, however, it gives no guarantee that those being consulted will have any control over, or even significant influence on, a final decision or its implementation. Indeed, given that the views/preferences/choices of those consulted may differ or even be in conflict, if ‘consultation’ is all that’s on offer then the final decision-makers may end up with considerable room for manoeuvre on, and even increased power over, what to do.
Here, too, the process is boundaried, though in ways which may only get identified by posing the question: participation in what? To this, surely, the most realistic answer is usually: in a setting which already exists and so has aims, structure and procedures which, it is assumed, any new ‘participant’ will accept and substantially work within. Initially at least, therefore, the effectiveness and impacts of any new ‘voices’ may depend on their willingness and ability to adapt to the setting’s given conditions and ways of operating – an expectation which (as also illustrated by the case study above) could be a tough ask of a young person entering adult-shaped and adult-dominated settings.
Probably the most ambitious of the aims set for ‘youth voice’ is to ‘empower’ young people – at least within youth settings as such though often it is suggested also within society’s wider institutions. Here, as colleagues and I have argued previously, it is important first to highlight how a notion with radical origins has been appropriated to serve much more conforming purposes:
Empowerment was introduced into the English vocabulary of youth and community work by activists involved in the social movements of the 1970’s. Explicitly it rejected the idea that the more powerful could empower the less powerful; that the youth worker could empower young people. Whilst the youth worker could seek to facilitate, the acid test was whether young people, typically in those days, young women or black young people, started to organise autonomously and collectively. Today’s overwhelming neo-liberal emphasis on ’empowering’ individuals from above masks the structural inequalities which restrict most young people’s choices.
Given what earlier I labelled ‘our society’s entrenched power balances’, some tough practice realities do of course have to be faced here. Nonetheless, in negotiating these and the dilemmas they pose, rather than – as the empowering label implies – simply assume young people’s powerless, why can’t the implicit and indeed over time explicit practitioner starting points be:
- ‘So – what power do you/might you, the young person, already have in this situation?
- ‘What is blocking your use – even perhaps your recognition – of that power?’
- ‘How might you act to exercise it – collectively as well as individually?’
- ‘To what ends?
- ‘With – of your choosing – what (if any) support?’
- https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2020/08/20/so-where-is-youth-work-where-is-the-youth-service-post-election-mid-covid/ , 20 August 2020
- British Youth Council, 2020, https://www.byc.org.uk/, accessed 19 September
- Instagram, 2020, ‘Involved UK’, https://www.instagram.com/involved.uk/?igshid=f64mcwwo7yvw; British Youth Council, 2020, ‘You are the voice of the future’, https://www.byc.org.uk/involved; both accessed 18 October 2020; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘#Chances4children: young people to influence Covid-19 policy using Instagram’ , CYPN, 3 July
- Bernard Davies, 2012, StreetCred2: The View From 42nd St, 42nd St, p 74
- Stanley, M.,1890, ‘Clubs for Working Girls’, in Booton, F., Studies in Social Education Vol 1, 1860-1890, Benfield Press, p 62; Charles Russell and Lilian Rigby, 1908, Working Lads’ Clubs, MacMillan and Co Ltd, p 85
- Board of Education. 1939, Circular 1486 – the service of youth’, Appendix para 2; Board of Education. 1940, The Challenge of Youth (Circular 1516), 27 June, para 7; Albemarle Report, 1960, The Youth Service in England and Wales, HMSO, p. 48; Fairbairn-Milson Report, 1969, Youth and Community Work in the 70s, London, HMSO, para 195; Thompson Report, 1982, Experience and Participation: Report of the Review Group on the Youth Service in England, HMSO, para 5.17
- Department of Education and Science, 1991, ‘Managing the Youth Service in the 1990s’, May, para 318
- See Bernard Davies, 2008, The New Labour Years: A History of the Youth Service in England Vol 3 1997-2007, pp 131-140.
- Department of Education and Skills, 2005, Youth Matters, July; Department of Education and Skills, 2006, Youth Matters: Next Steps, , March, paras 4.6-4.8
- National Foundation for Educational Research, 2008, Outcomes of the Youth Opportunity Fund/Youth Capital Fund, Research Report DCSF-RR046, p.iv
- HM Government, 2011, Positive for Youth: A New Approach to Government Policy for Young People Aged 13 to 19, Executive Summary, para 6.12, 6.13, p 88; Andy Hillier, 2011, ‘Young people will have a say in government’s youth policy, says Loughton’, CYPN, 10 March
- HM Government, 2011, Positive for Youth, para 6.13
- HM Government, 2011, Positive for Youth, Executive Summary, p. 4; Adam Offord, 2016, “Government commits to long-term funding for youth project”, CYPN, 26 January; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“British Youth Council receives £170k to lead ‘youth voice’ projects”’, CYPN, 28 February
- Baroness Barran, 2020, ‘Youth Minister: Young people have a key role to play in our nation’s recovery’, CYPN, 20 August
- For example Youth Association, 2010, ‘LS $ash’, 14 October, http://youth-association.org/tag/youth-capital-fund
- Andy Hillier, 2010, ‘Youth Opportunity Fund at risk as ringfence expected to go’, CYPN, 7 June
- Neil Puffett, 2013, ‘Young people to probe Gove’s dismissal of youth policy’ CYPN, 8 February; Neil Puffett, 2013, ‘Young people call on Gove to invest in youth services’, CYPN, 11 February
- See for example Sally Weale, 2018, ‘Stress and serious anxiety: how the new GCSE is affecting mental health’, Guardian, 17 May
- DES, 1991, Managing the Youth Service in the 1990s: Report, paras 319
- DES, 1991, Managing the Youth Service in the 1990s: Report, paras 322, 323
- Bernard Davies, 2015, ‘Youth Work: A Manifesto For Our Tomes – Revisited’ Youth and Policy, No 114, May, p 103, https://www.youthandpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/davies-youth-work-manifesto-revisted.pd
- Does this article perhaps offer some pointers on this? George Monbiot, 2020, ‘Extinction Rebellion is showing Britain what real democracy could look like’, Guardian, 16 September
- Tony Taylor, Paula Connaughton, Tania de St Croix, Bernard Davies and Pauline Grace, 2018, ‘The Impact of Neoliberalism on the Character and Purpose of English Youth Work and Beyond’, in Pam Aldred, Fin Cullen, Kathy Edwards and Dana Fusco, The Sage Handbook of Youth Work Practice, Sage, pp 84 -97