A few weeks ago I contributed to the Transformative Youth Work conference in Plymouth via a short seminar and as an ‘expert’ panel member. Here is the three-minute intro I offered at the beginning of the panel-led debate, ‘Critical Reflections on Youth Work Evaluation’. Obviously, it is sweeping, stuffed with assertions and short on jokes.
INTRO TO CRITICAL REFLECTIONS ON YOUTH WORK EVALUATION DEBATE, SEPTEMBER 5, PLYMOUTH
Other Panel members were Bethia McNeil, Centre for Youth Impact [UK], Professor Emeritus Dale Blythe [USA] and Dr Lasse Siurala [Finland]
The first thing to stress is that I have always sought to evaluate my practice in collaboration with fellow workers and young people themselves, stressing the positives, but always mindful of the uncertain, provisional nature of the judgements I made in endless reports across the years to committees of all kinds.
However, it is no secret that I am critical, indeed hostile to the discourse of impact evaluation that has come to dominate since the mid-1990’s, particularly so in the UK following the 2008 financial crisis. In my opinion, it is impossible to understand the agenda of prescribed outcomes, the fixation on data, the metrification of our practice outside of the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism over the last 40 years – what has become the common-sense of our age. In particular, I would draw your attention to neoliberalism’s spectacular behavioural modification project, its desire to privatise the way we see the world, to mould us in its own possessive, self-centred image. Few of us have escaped completely its clutches.
And, given youth work is essentially an effort to influence the character or the personality of a young person I do see impact evaluation as neoliberalism’s chosen method of regulating, monitoring and policing the unruly and unpredictable world of open youth work.
Its demands undermine a youth work founded on a voluntary relationship and improvised conversation with groups of young people’s choosing, ungoverned by time – a critical dialogue within which young person and youth worker are educated by one another. Impact evaluation violates the ‘intimate democratic’ space, the respect and love created, the willingness to listen, which are a prerequisite for fostering an authentic, public democracy.
As Filip Coussee puts it succinctly and memorably, this discourse seeks ‘to formalise the informal’.
As it is I think the impact enterprise is fatally flawed. Character is complex. It is not a mix of traits to be taught, inculcated and measured. But I’ll leave aside technical and managerial issues – could we improve this or that tool and the like?
In the end, my concern is with the purpose of our theory and practice, with the politics of youth work.
Do we wish to manufacture the emotionally resilient young person, who will put up with the slings and arrows of antagonistic social policies, accept their precarious lot and do the best for themselves – utterly individualised and responsibilised?
Do we wish to play a part, however fragile and uncertain, in the emergence of a young critical citizen, committed to challenging their lot in concert with one another and indeed ourselves, struggling to forge a more just and equal society, believing that ‘another world is possible’?
Given the crisis haunting humanity’s future, I believe there is only one option. And having made explicitly the choice, then, by all means, let’s think about how well we are doing.
[My reference above to ‘intimate democracy’ is a touch presumptuous as I’ve only just begun, courtesy of Hans Skott-Mhyre, to explore its possibilities as a way of describing what we do. Its origin as a concept seems to lie in the writings of Rosi Braidotti, Professor in Media and Cultural Studies at the Utrecht University.]
If you want to look more closely and indeed critically at some of the themes in my argument, see this piece in Youth & Policy.