A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
In this week’s blog, Jamie Mercer from Youth Focus: North East looks at the need for youth services to unite and adopt new methods of working together in the face of prospective cuts to services.
Let me level with you, on the back of all of the surveys and polls from the big pollsters the last few weeks and months, I was fully expecting to be writing this morning about political parties desperately and frantically thrashing out coalition agreements and deal by deal partnerships but the decision looks to be taken care of already with an unexpected majority Conservative government.
With the Conservatives sitting on 331 seats, there will be an argument that they will no longer need to work in partnership to achieve their manifesto aims and objectives; however, in practice, this won’t be the case and it will take careful negotiation and manoeuvring to implement the changes they wish to make.
With the announcement of this narrow majority government comes the promise of more cuts. Cuts to the tune of £12 billion to unspecified welfare and £30 billion over the course of parliament, to be precise, which puts the future of local authority youth services in peril. So what is the next step for youth work organisations and the employees that work to improve the lives of young people in their area?
David Cameron has suggested: “We’re all in this together”. At the time, he was talking about keeping Scotland as part of the United Kingdom but now, as the traditional boundaries have crumbled, it could very well apply to us as we need to make sure that public, private and voluntary sectors unite to offer a collective youth service using a whole sector approach. The public and voluntary sectors need to radically rethink their methodologies.
Working in partnership has long been the proposed direction for the youth sector as it steers its way through the uncertain waters of local authority budget cuts and scarce funding opportunities but perhaps this model needs looking at? Maybe instead of working in partnership, we should be looking at working in co-production?
Youth Focus: North East has been exploring the idea of co-production for a number of years and believe that, having withstood five years of tough cuts, and with five more promised, we as a sector need to be more open minded and positive about co-production as a method of working together. But what exactly is co-production?
According to Governance International, co-production can be defined as:
“The public sector and citizens making better use of each other’s assets and resources to achieve better outcomes and improved efficiency,”
But I like the New Economics Foundation’s definition better:
“Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours.”
Think of it this way. Services depend upon the unacknowledged knowledge, assets, and efforts of service users as much as the expertise of the professional providers. So why can’t the third sector be that bridge between third party organisations and the people that are affected, positively or negatively, by their products or services?
Co-production, as a mind-set, emphasises recipients of services as active users rather than passive beneficiaries and can lead to better long-term outcomes. In order for co-production to work, changes need to be made to conventional partnership practice. Strict quantitative targets and identifying short-term outputs can be detrimental and act as a barrier to co-production. But without key performance indicators and detectible outputs, how can we measure impact? Real impact is very difficult to measure, as Toby Lowe covered in an Evidencing Good Youth Work seminar we held in 2012. Identifying other methods of ascertaining the effectiveness of a co-production model is something you will have to discuss with any potential partner organisation.
Common criticisms of co-production are that it is only a cover for the withdrawal of services and that it is just “participation” rebadged. With regards to the first point, that would only be the case in the event of bad co-production, whereas co-production done correctly will empower service users and help shape the service provided to allow it to be more successful. With the latter point, co-production encourages service users to play a role in delivering services rather than just inputting into how they should be improved which is where the key distinction lies.
With local authority youth provision on the ropes, children and youth services could potentially be given to third party organisations, whether private or charitable, and because they will be able to be held much more accountable than local authorities, they will need to ensure that their work is having the impact it should, which is where youth workers come in.
We, as a sector, need to be moving away from models of formed consortia looking to add each other to future funding bids – that isn’t the right motivation! The key, with co-production certainly, is to make sure that the organisation you work with shares the same core values and principles that you do. If you don’t check at first that, ethically, you are all on the same page then this can present issues further down the line.
This isn’t about consultation, nor is it about participation. It would be missing the point to just advise to consult more or involve more people in the decision making process. The whole point of co-production is to encourage people to use their own individual skills and experiences to help deliver public or voluntary services. And after all is said and done, is that not one of the cornerstones of our work?