The Everyday and The Remarkable: Valuing and Evaluating Youth Work
The following is an excerpt from an article co-written by Louise Doherty and Tania de St Croix based on their research project, Rethinking Impact, Evaluation and Accountability in Youth Work, and originally published in Youth & Policy. YouthREX had the pleasure of hosting Tania in Canada as our Special Guest for various events for the Ontario youth sector from August 31, 2023, to September 07, 2023. Learn more about these events and access resources by Tania on the Knowledge Hub.
“The inevitability of dealing with complex situations has become part of ‘everyday’ youth work, where youth workers expect to face a myriad of people and events during any session – this is everyday practice, but also remarkable. … Remarkable that youth workers can form a bridge, translating differing needs across a community – speaking to the public, to young people and others. Remarkable that this practice, so undervalued, misrepresented and misunderstood continues to retain a sense of identity and purpose.” – Fieldnote, LD, Melham Youth Service
We begin our article with this scenario highlighting one of many instances of everyday yet remarkable practice we have observed during our study, Rethinking Impact, Evaluation and Accountability in Youth Work. Our research investigates how youth impact and evaluation mechanisms are enacted in youth work settings, and how the evaluation and monitoring of youth work are experienced and perceived by young people and youth workers.
While reflecting on what we heard and experienced during project visits and research interviews, we were struck by the remarkable examples of the impact of youth work, as well as by the rich and meaningful nature of everyday youth work practice and its contribution to young people’s lives and wider communities. Yet we are concerned that the way practice is recognised and valued by those most deeply involved is disconnected from the way it is required to be measured, monitored and evaluated.
Measuring Youth Work: Tensions and Challenges
Measurement and evaluation are shaped by their economic and social context; they also have the potential to reproduce and/or challenge existing power relations. Therefore, it is essential to pay attention to the context – characterised by inequalities, poverty, colonial histories and environmental devastation – in which youth work and its evaluation take place.
Youth work is open to all, yet is often chosen by groups of young people who are marginalised and oppressed in wider society, particularly working class young people, many of whom live in poverty or on low incomes and have limited spaces to spend their time outside of school.
Such contexts shape the setting, as well as the acceptability or unacceptability (in the eyes of youth workers and young people) of impact measurement practices. Working class young people of diverse gender and racialised identities are already disproportionately subjected to practices of surveillance, othering and measurement that are rooted in histories of eugenics, colonialism and social control. Thus, what might be seen as unhelpful reluctance on behalf of young people and youth workers to comply with evaluation and tracking may be an understandable resistance to being subjected to measurement and surveillance as a means of social control.
While evaluation can be an opportunity for mutual learning and practice development, it is also a practice of neoliberal governance in which organisations must compete to survive. Accountability mechanisms are performative; in other words, they do not merely represent practice but shape practice, often rendering it standardised and comparable. Asking young people to complete complex and intrusive paperwork can undermine the informality of settings and obstruct relationships between youth workers and young people. Ill-fitting or superficial methods of monitoring can create an uncomfortable dilemma for practitioners, enforcing the quantitative measurement of short-term ‘outcomes’ on a qualitative, long-term practice.
Strategies for Democratising Evaluation
In discussing tensions, challenges and constraints, we are not arguing against evaluation and accountability; indeed, in the settings we visited there was an acknowledgement that certain types of evaluative processes supported a reflective approach to practice. As experienced youth workers, we recognise that meaningful evaluation contributes to professional development and the centring of young people’s views and experiences; we also recognise that funders (governmental and non-governmental) want to know that organisations are accountable for the resources they use. Nevertheless, impact measurement and accountability mechanisms can and must be more clearly rooted in the needs and realities of practice. To support a more democratic approach, we raise three questions for consideration when designing and carrying out evaluation.
1. Does evaluation suit the setting?
Rather than proposing a single approach, then, we suggest that policy makers, funders and managers engage with those closest to practice – young people and youth workers – enabling them to use a range of tools and approaches that can be selected and used flexibly in different settings and by different young people over time.
2. Does evaluation reinforce or challenge unequal power relations?
At its best, youth work creates an anti-oppressive space for young people to gather and spend time in their peer groups, celebrating and developing their own cultures. Yet youth work practices – and their evaluation and monitoring – also have the potential to reinforce structures of domination and inequality.
We suggest therefore that funders and policy makers need to lower the stakes, while avoiding recording and evaluation mechanisms that are intrusive, surveillant, or otherwise reinforce inequalities and oppression. Where evaluation claims to be about ‘learning’, there is a need to reflect on whether this is how it is experienced on the ground. Ethics need to be considered, and perhaps academic research practice can be instructive here; in research, participants must have the right to informed consent over whether they take part, should not be disadvantaged if they choose not to do so, and questions should (where possible) avoid causing stress. These principles could well be extended to monitoring and evaluation.
3. Does evaluation capture and value both the everyday and the remarkable?
Evaluation cannot possibly capture everything and is likely to be reductive of the complexity and subtlety of what actually happens. In our view, rather than look for more evidence or one tool that meets all needs, it is important to match a fluid process with a dynamic range of approaches.
In terms of evaluating the ‘everyday’ aspects of youth work, it is important to emphasise the intrinsic value for young people of having a space outside of school and home where they can be together. This needs only light touch evaluation that enables young people and youth workers to reflect, develop and own the space. This may be best achieved through building awareness amongst funders and politicians about the value of youth work and what it contributes to young people’s everyday lives.
Above all, evaluation systems need to be dynamic, flexible and adaptable.
Rather than seeking to ‘measure’ practice, a grassroots democratic approach to accountability would attempt to create the conditions in which high quality practice can be nurtured and developed. These conditions must include less hierarchical relationships within the youth sector, funding bodies and policy-making more generally, to allow for the development of evaluation processes that enhance practice, are anti-oppressive, build trust and not reductive of the complexity and subtlety of what happens in youth work settings.
Appropriate youth-centred evaluation is needed but what is most important is the rebuilding of an adequate and proportional youth work sector that is able to have an everyday value and a remarkable impact on young people’s lives.
Image courtesy of Devin Avery on Unsplash.