A process project: thoughts on youth work, needs, outcomes, values and evaluation

A process project: thoughts on youth work, needs, outcomes, values and evaluation

Background

Youth workers often say they aspire to ‘meet the needs of young people’. Likewise, it’s common to hear: ‘we want to ensure young people’s voices are heard’, ‘empower young people’, and ‘keep young people at the core of the work’. Few involved in youth work would disagree. And yet it’s common also to hear talk of having the responsibility for ‘developing and implementing a means to assess [usually ‘measure’] outcomes’, typically, through some kind of ‘Outcomes Framework’. And then there is the responsibility to ‘identify and share good practice’, although we are typically unsure if this is the same or different from ‘evidence-based practice’.

An exploration of the potential conflicts and tensions between these various positions

Simply put, there is the basic question of who should determine ‘the needs of young people’ in youth work. Taking into account the strongly held view that young people’s voices should be heard, and that youth work is young person-centred, and aims to empower those engaged in it, the question of how these needs should be determined seems, interestingly, to provide an answer to the aforementioned question of who should determine needs. Think ‘share holder’ or ‘stakeholder’. It seems reasonable to say there are several voices that should be heard when discussing young people’s needs, even if young people’s views should be centremost. Which further informs answers to our question of how these needs should be determined; only a dialogue between these different parties will do. And yet, many argue that youth work – fundamentally – exists at the level of individuals and the groups they are a part of (as well as the wider structural entities that are involved with it, such as local authorities, voluntary organisations and other funders). This implies extraordinary diversity at the local level and the impossibility of measuring ‘like for like in youth work’.

We are left then with, what might be called, the challenge of process. And a further question as to the veracity of ‘evidence-based’ conceptualisations of ‘good practice’: if the process matters so much (in the sense of what happens at this local level) can it ever be said a template exists for what good practice looks like beyond a description of the processes used? As such, the notion of ‘evidence-based practice’ starts to look at odds with youth work’s participative culture. Likewise, we might doubt the idea that we can know definitively the outcomes of our work, that is, before it begins. In sum, if youth work is to be substantively (if not entirely) informed by the views of young people (and we appreciate these views are likely to change throughout the process of it) it cannot be true that outcomes can be known in advance.

This casts doubt also on whether it’s reasonable for the evidence of what worked in the past with one individual, or one group, to determine what happens in the future when working with other young people. Nonetheless, it does seem reasonable that this evidence could, and should, inform our thinking and professional judgement as to how we might approach our work in the future. It should arouse suggestions (Dewey, 1930: 186), but surely not dictate them. It is in thinking critically about what experience shows that quality is enhanced. Accordingly, the commitment to hearing young people’s voices and placing them at the ‘core’ of decision-making demands the conceptualisation of outcomes as, simplistically, the things that ‘come out’. The wider commitment to youth work as a process of empowerment relies on this, and it becomes tenable only when outcomes are ‘captured’, as they occur, rather than formulated as pre-determined goals – think of documenting the process, and what, if anything, comes out.

Two mechanisms give rise to the seductive potential that outcomes can be reasonably pre-determined. The first comes from the contractual imperative: where agencies are commissioned to ‘deliver’ youth work. As in all contracts, the commissioning agency demands to know what they are getting for their money – and within particular timescales. Here, youth work and its relationships become temporally-bound and focussed on products rather than processes. Secondly, the belief that the outcomes of youth work can be determined in advance lends itself to solving the evaluation conundrum; it becomes a simple matter of judging whether the ‘provider’ delivers the outcomes asked of them. But, it’s not as easy as this. Not that aims don’t matter; they do. But aims need to be understood as different from targets to be achieved. Aims, by definition, are primarily informed by values, such as the commitment to autonomy and empowerment. Whilst they might sculpt methods, aims should not dictate the specificity of the work done; that is, the precise terms of the outcomes ‘to be arrived at’.

Finally, there are wider but no less important philosophical questions, not least about the nature of education itself – of which youth work must surely be a form. d’Agnese (2015:8), following Dewey (1929), reminds us that “if we could predict in advance the outcomes of education, we would not have education”. Which reminds us again that values and processes matter. Therein, in thinking about values, some clarity emerges. If youth work takes place, to all intents and purposes, in the context of voluntary association, then it matters greatly that it is of value to young people. Which suggests some scepticism is needed about the discourse of measurement, and an appreciation of its limitations. Young people do not measure youth work; they value it. Youth-centred documentary processes, based on critical reflective thinking, that chart (‘capture’, if you like) the process of youth work, and its outcomes, may be all that remains – but they are no less important (and valuable) because of this.