Historically, services for young people have been regarded as ‘self-evidently good.’ It is widely accepted that services can have a transformational impact on individual young people’s lives, and the youth sector can produce significant numbers of case studies and anecdotes to support this position. There is plenty of qualitative evidence that testifies to the impact these services make.
For many years, this approach has been sufficient to secure funding to support and grow the sector. And it has grown; seeing significant investment, particularly under the last government. Alongside this investment, youth sector organisations became used to an increased level of reporting, as part of an attempt to ‘raise the game’, but this reporting focused on quantity rather than quality: outputs and activities rather than outcomes. Consequently, quantitative evidence of the impact of services for young people is much less available.
More focused approaches to assessing or evidencing impact have been resisted, for two primary reasons. First, a belief that much of the change services create for young people is intangible and ‘too difficult to measure’. Second, an argument that the very nature of work with young people is undermined through the process of focusing on outcomes and impact; prescribing or predicting outcomes is felt to run counter to the creative and negotiated nature of working with young people, particularly within youth work settings.
Government, both central and local, is clear that services funded by public money must be able to demonstrate their impact and articulate value. The tightening financial climate has provided the perfect context within which to press this point. This presents a significant challenge for a sector which has never been called upon to demonstrate its worth in this way. The lack of quantifiable evidence base for the impact of services for young people, alongside shrinking budgets, has created something of a ‘burning platform’, which is driving action and resistance in equal measures.
A large amount of the resistance to a greater emphasis on outcomes is a concern around accountability and influence. Services for young people are afraid of being held to account in areas where they have little influence, such as young people’s long-term career prospects or health outcomes. There can be a significant time lag between the point at which a service engages with a young person and the point at which these longer-term outcomes may be achieved.
This time lag might be due to age (a service works with 11-year-olds, so progressing towards sustainable employment is a long way ahead) or stage (a service works with persistent young offenders, so progressing towards sustainable employment will involve a high level of support and time). Young people live complex lives, with a range of influences and interactions; it is very difficult to isolate the contribution that one service (or frequently, one practitioner) makes, often within a relatively short timeframe.
But services for young people have never been able or encouraged to focus their accountability where they do make the most difference: at the level of personal change. For too long, services have sought to make their mark through impact on positional change: jobs, economic productivity, stable housing and so on. It is no coincidence that these are often the areas where there is significant cost the public purse when things do not go so well.
We have reached a stage where all actors are firmly fixed in their positions. The historical avoidance of measuring personal change has undermined the purpose that lies at the heart of services for young people, and has failed to develop an understanding of how personal change contributes to positional change. An inability to demonstrate impact on longer-term outcomes has led to a raft of proxy indicators, which have come to define some of the features of services for young people, but which are poor at capturing value. This search for proxy indicators has not solved the problem but has created an industry focused on numbers and statistics.
Providers are not articulating their value through their impact on personal change – building social and emotional capabilities – as they fear they will not be taken seriously. Funders and commissioners know that this is where services for young people make a difference, but the lack of evidence for its longer-term impact makes them nervous about promoting this as an explicit focus. Investors are also aware that the value is in relationships, but cannot see any examples of where the focus on other forms of monitoring has been challenged.
So, how do we shift from this position? Who should blink first?
There is substantial and growing evidence that developing the social and emotional capabilities that influence personal change supports the achievement of positive life outcomes, including educational attainment, employment and health. Evidence shows that approaches which focus on building social and emotional capabilities can have greater long-term impact than ones that focus on directly seeking to reduce the symptoms of poor outcomes for young people. This is where the true value of services for young people lies.
The Framework of Outcomes for Young People aims to support progress towards a future in which providers are confident and able to evidence their impact, and where commissioners are confident to supplement their focus on reducing negative outcomes with an equal or stronger focus on commissioning for positive and sustained personal and social development. The Framework challenges the lack of consensus around the outcomes that services aim for and are able to deliver, and the lack of consistency in measuring these outcomes.
We hope that the Framework will empower motivated practitioners to improve the quality of their services and demonstrate the impact of their work, and enable commissioners and investors to gather evidence and analyse the difference that services make to young people. It offers a chance to forge a common language to support ongoing discussion and development of approaches to measuring and demonstrating the impact of services on the personal and social development of young people.
It’s time for us to take that collective breath, and blink.