Efficiency; what efficiency? A question from a detached youth work conference.
As ever, the voices of detached youth workers offered a direct line to social reality. When will those who speculate on young people’s lives (policy makers, commissioners, and the like) learn to listen to those whose experience is based on being with young people on a daily basis, and on working in places few others are prepared to tread?
Delegates at this year’s annual conference of the Federation for Detached Youth Work discussed the effect of social policy (and its diversity across the home nations) on young people and detached youth work practices. They considered also ways to influence decision-making on these matters.
Held in North Wales, with the much-welcomed support of the Welsh Government, the venue was Pontins’ Prestatyn Sands Holiday Park. While it was chosen, frankly, for its cheapness, many delegates recognised that this venue meant that they were in close proximity not only to regular holiday-makers for whom this might be their only break of the year, but also to a workforce typically representative of the working poor. Worse still, nigh all of these members of staff were working their last weekend, having been told that their services were no longer required. With no little sense of irony, delegates mused on the parallels with their plight, given they too are impacted on by new models of part-time, temporary, minimum wage, and short-term contract-based models of detached youth work foisted on them in the name of becoming a ‘flexible, nimble, agile, and economically efficient’ workforce. How these words have been abused by those who equate efficiency only with cost-savings!
The detached youth worker is, or should be, the first, and last, in line. Being present they can head off a crisis in hours, saving a fortune in grief and money in the long-term. It means also they are present when that young person has a dip (think ‘yo-yo’ not linearity when it comes to inclusion – exclusion). And they’re present again when those who’ve been supported become, with the confidence of their own experience, the ones to ‘signpost’ their peers (rather than the multiplicity of ‘services’ who prefer this to getting their own hands dirty). And then, and finally, they are the last in line, when such services have cast folk aside. Here it’s about dignity not economy; dead they’d be cheaper. Watch as economic incentivisation works its magic, or ‘time-limited recovery’ bears fruit. Or not, as the case will be.
Austerity is the rationale, and cuts the medicine. But what of the effect on young people and the practices of detached youth work (increasingly tasked to sort out the fallout and contribute to a solution)? In the first instance, there’s the emergence of a new form of ‘graduate entry’, but rather than this being to the workplace, it’s to the dole queue. The lucky few within this group create unlucky others as they squeeze out a swathe of lesser qualified young people from the traditional entry level jobs that gave them the hope that a reasonable future was possible. Forced then to endure an endless round of visits to not one but often several ‘employability initiatives’, at best they are supported in ‘pimping’ their CVs. At least the engagement figures look good; remember, its presentation that counts.
While many detached youth workers are drawn into this activating agenda, yet others are moved to the environments where the fallout occurs: the school, the home, and sites of anti-social behaviour. This might explain to some extent why the numbers of delegates were a few down on previous years; the Federation had had contact with those who attended before. They explained that the focus of their work had shifted to these ‘new’ agendas and managers now asserted that networking and training with the detached youth work community was no longer necessary. For others, there was, simply, no funding to support their participation. This leaves a third group; those now unemployed themselves, having lost their jobs because of ‘restructuring’, ‘rationalisation’ or ‘down-sizing’; the youth service often having been the first to go. We can say then the label ‘detached youth worker’ is less and less common, as services are refashioned.
Delegates took a close look at these new ways of working; all appear prey to the individualising thrust of social (sic.) policy. Working with individual families or ‘targeted youth support’ is the order of the day. But the ironies abound; individualisation creates new problems: perversely, problems that detached youth workers are then asked to solve. Targeting work at the ‘at risk’ (might ‘at riskism’ be the new prejudice?), rather than being effective merely extinguishes the potential of ‘normal’ peers and adults to provide valuable support. Not only does this represent an inefficient use of community resources, but it also deprives these others from learning the ways of support and developing the empathy this contact brings. Separation and segregation follow; just so the request that detached youth workers support ‘social mixing’ – the very thing these policies have inhibited. How efficient is that?
So too their incorporation into ‘community reassurance’ and ‘rapid response’ programmes is a symptom of wrong-headed policies elsewhere. Policies that invoke a society in which we are perpetually at risk from the other; where fear and intolerance grows not goes. So too abolishing housing benefit to the under 25s. “Go back to you mam’s” they say, but the street for many will become their home. And watch as the detached youth workers are asked to come back. How cyclic, and inefficient, this is.
Subjectivity in statute is everywhere (anti-social behaviour is defined as that that evokes ‘harassment, alarm of distress’) yet masquerades as science, thereby verifying the logic of control. These policies, that distract social professionals from doing anything social, are found to be less and less efficient, not more: cohesion, learning to rub along with difference is the casualty, not the prize. In sum, one branch of the policy agenda trying to fix the negative effects of another. How efficient is that?
So it was interesting to reflect on the new murmurings of (albeit only a few) senior officers and commissioners who, having put all their eggs in the basket of ‘hub’ and ‘Myplace’ schemes, fear now being unable to meet their visitor targets. Its clear assumptions were made, that the youth would come in their droves: the little left over to promote engagement paid for no more than a few ineffectual fliers. Instrumental it may be, but overtures made to detached youth workers to support community engagement and outreach to fix this problem are welcomed. Could this be the phoenix of the tried and tested practice of community development emerging from the ashes of increasingly discredited and ineffective policy? Might there be some enlightenment in having shone a light in personal places – that community work is where it’s at? That its ‘pro-social’ interventions we need.
Of course, the spectre of hitting the target and missing the point will continue for a good while yet. The performative behaviours of favouring promotion and marketing than substance, in order to secure that contract; of picking so-called ‘low-hanging fruit’ to meet targets (thereby exacerbating the exclusion of others); and employing other such ‘smoke and mirrors’ devices need outing. Ethical reflection, one (I guess, naïvely) hopes, would be the catalyst; but maybe detached youth workers need to get beyond trade practices and be active some more in articulating the growing body of evidence that these neo-liberal ways (for that is what they must accurately be seen as) are, in fact, less efficient, not more. That is, if we dare to assume, that we are talking about the same thing here: social protection, welfare, education, and opportunity as the seed corn for a good society where economic well-being comes to all and not the few. Perish the thought though; perhaps the aims of policy makers are different …?
Out of this despondency emerged a renewed spirit of optimism. Detached youth workers recognised the value of continuing to meet young people ‘where they’re at’, not just in physical spaces but also in terms of the wants, needs, interests and passions they present. There will be a new confidence in questioning models of pre-scripted outcomes that have sought to displace time-served processes of negotiation, and articulating the wider benefits of what was – and needs to become again – a community development practice, without which (if, for the meantime, we are constrained in this narrative for a while yet) ‘the system’ we have now will be less efficient, not more.