Youth Voice: Meaningful Youth Participation in Program Evaluation Isn’t Easy
YouthREX recently completed Beyond Measure: The State of Evaluation and Action in Ontario’s Youth Sector, reporting the results of a province-wide survey of youth-serving nonprofits in Ontario, as well as the results of a series of in-depth interviews with grassroots youth sector leaders. As part of both methods, we asked people about how youth were involved – in both the general governance and direction-setting of their organizations and specifically in their program evaluation activities.
Young people, particularly adolescents, are exploring social boundaries and identities and discovering their ability to conceptualize and address social problems. Healthy outlets for leadership and decision-making are important to their growth. So it’s not surprising that ideals surrounding youth voice are widespread in the youth-serving sector.
This is reflected in our data. A solid majority (72%) of survey respondents agreed that youth should be involved in their evaluation activities, and 69% reported that youth were involved in at least one aspect of program evaluation. In a small number of the organizations we interviewed, youth were involved in designing and supporting evaluation research. Those organizations who most valued the “youth voice” in their services, and viewed youth as key stakeholders, showed they could be pro-active in learning from youth about best practices. A few had “youth advisory committees” whose members played key roles in the decision-making processes surrounding programming.
However, we also know that in many ways, youth participation is still a work in progress. While a majority of our survey respondents included youth in evaluation, in large part this translates into youth being sources of evaluation data – survey respondents or focus group participants. Only 19% of respondents included youth voice in the development of their evaluation plans, for example. Organizations were also nearly three times as likely to identify youth distrust of evaluation activities as a challenge, than they were to recognize distrust of evaluation among their own staff.
From a positive youth development perspective, youth voice in evaluation is very much a work in progress. How do we account for this? When probed further about limited youth involvement in the evaluation process, respondents raised concerns of confidentiality, time constraints (to train and supervise youths), and their own limited knowledge in the evaluation techniques:
Well, probably the reason would be limitation, staff limitation, basically the focus is on – we only have two staff for all York region and basically just doing the work, not a lot of time to supervise anybody. There’s no staff who could supervise the youth, we’d have to do ourselves…We don’t have any volunteers right now.
(Participant ID 45, Large Organization, Central Ontario).
Probably confidentially to be honest with you because some of them may know the children that they would be talking to… London is a relatively small community and we do have children involved from almost every elementary school in the city. So if we were to involve children or youth there may be a chance that confidentiality in terms of what’s going on in a child’s family or something might be broken.
(Participant ID 42, Large organization, Southwest Ontario)
A more systemic exploration of these results might interrogate the tension between competing ideals in nonprofit work – specifically the conflict between rigorous accountability and democratic openness. Many nonprofits, particularly in the grassroots, are attempting to rapidly professionalize their evaluation activities in order to compete for limited funds which can sustain their important programming. At the same time, we increasingly turn to civil society groups for help in solving public problems because they activate and mobilize the passion and grounded knowledge of ordinary people in their communities – including youth.
As we further study the state of the youth-serving non-profit sector in Ontario, we hope a critical conversation will develop about how to make youth leadership work, particularly when it comes to evaluation, meaningfully within systems of accountability and limited resources.