Article: Managing managerialism – how the 21st Century manager can truly thrive

Author: Jake Hampson and Tim Howell | Tags: , , ,

Managing youth services is no mean feat. In recent times, it has become even more challenging with less funding and resources available to secure the work. This requires managers to not only lead staff teams and services effectively but champion the work as they fight to keep services going. In this article, Jake Hampson and Tim Howell identify some of these challenges and suggest how managers might navigate a complex and challenging professional environment.

In response to a perceived negative youth culture, the Albemarle Report (1960) provided local authority youth work with a committed practice framework, enabling wider society to see the world through the eyes of young people. Nearly sixty years later, an accordion effect places blinkers on the professional peripheral view, crushing quality services, squeezing practitioners trying to maintain quality youth work, delivered with far less resources (Fusco, et al., 2013). The funding landscape of the youth sector continues to evolve with each passing policy (or lack of), with 75% of local authorities suggesting that by 2020, youth service funding will of all but vanished (Cabinet Office, 2014). How can the 21st century manager champion a professional discipline with a person-centred approach within a target driven market?

The rise of managerialism

Later coined ‘managerialism’ (Enteman, 1993: 45), public services were reformed by a Thatcher-led Conservative government in the 1980s, interjecting business minded thinking into health, social care and education, under the guise of economic benefit. In the 1990’s, the Ministerial Conferences (NYA, 1992) cemented the values of youth work, calling for a greater accountability for the profession. However, to achieve this, practitioners needed to be able to quantitatively validate their impact, thus the initial seeds of managerialism were sewn (Bradford, 2015). It was not until 2002’s Transforming Youth Work that target-driven work took hold and evolved into this culture so alien to youth work’s process driven heritage (Taylor, 2009).  Alongside the endemic funding cuts within the sector, managerialism is more prevalent than ever (Buchroth, 2012). The entrepreneurial terminology of business has become rooted within even the smallest of youth organisations, with talk of quality outcomes and competing stakeholders becoming examples of best practice across the board. Managerialism takes business industry techniques such as performance indicators, increased scrutiny and rationing, for increased efficiencies (Seden, 2005).

Managerialism has had a detrimental effect on the grass-rooted informality of the profession (Dart, 2004, cited in Doherty et al., 2014). Predetermined outcomes and regulation systems may mirror what is deemed to be required by funders, however, these have drifted the profession away from its frontline priorities (Jones, 2012). Many value-led organisations quickly discover that their non-hierarchal structures and democratic approaches are not able to respond quickly enough to the demands of what has become a fast-paced and competitive market. Nicholls (2012) acknowledged the rise in managers employed without a youth work background, who focus on the administrative implications of practice and not the powerful relational work which is so crucial to the identity of the profession. A focus on targeted outcomes restricts the spontaneity of work, standardising activities and limiting the autonomy of workers (Banks, 2004).

The marketisation of young people

Evidence-based practice in its simplest form is using research to support work being delivered (Cooper, 2012) and has quickly become an expected competence of the profession. Youth work has gained increasing accountability and in turn this has led to the rigorous assessment of work undertaken in order to meet needs and outline impact (Alston & Bowles, 2013).  This obsession with measurable outcomes, where quantitative data outweighs qualitative experience, has led to the emergence of a narrow evidence-base being accepted as the norm. Youth work happens within a range of contexts and as a diverse practice, managers should be wary of accepting what is sold as the ‘right’ way of working. The Centre for Youth Impact (2017) looks to innovate the evaluation of services, rather than falling back on traditional tools, recognising that we currently work within a managerial context and that in order to maintain sustainability, a clear illustration of work undertaken is key. Service user expertise combined with empirical research arguably reduces risk, by justifying impact from data before action is taken. This focus epitomises the marketised ideology, where funders can compare service providers like-for-like, and sell to those offering best value for money. However, young people’s lives are not like-for-like, and evidence should not discount their unique contexts, lived experiences and sense-making capacities reduced to objectivist data (Kingston and Melvin, 2012).

Thriving in the 21st century comes down to effective managerial strategy. The social care labyrinth cannot be navigated single-handedly and the relational power between practitioners is a force to be harnessed. Rather than focussing on minor squabbles, creating societal change is the real battle. This can only be achieved by creating an atmosphere within a workforce that harbours this belief, and this should be the primary focus of managers today. Organisational structures are put in place to improve efficiency, control demand for resources and retain a sense of focus. This is influenced by job responsibilities and any centralized decision-making systems and processes. All youth and community organisational structures and cultures differ dependent on their history, driving cause, demographic and the impact of government policy; but they must liberate staff and empower them as autonomous professionals rather than units of bureaucracy to be micro-managed.

Overcoming the ‘divide and conquer’ approach

Beneath the surface of any workplace there is a sub-culture of informal leaders and close-knit friendship groups, boasting often untapped skills and knowledge. By developing people, managers are able to raise the social capital of their organisation, giving their workers a real sense of purpose whilst preparing an arsenal of talents in reserve to tackle inequalities and support service-user need from a two-fold experienced and educated value base. Managers must not lose sight of the core skills of practice, particularly reflexivity (Ord, 2016).  Reflective practice enables practitioners to regulate battles not only amongst themselves but also within the wider context of the sector, including cross-sectoral working. Rather than side-swiping at the National Citizen Service, for example (de St Croix, 2017), we should be inclusively collaborating and supporting the professionalising of the whole sector.

Since Every Child Matters (2003), the ability to work alongside professionals both within and outside of the youth sector has become an expected professional competence (Rixon, 2007). Practitioners should no longer work in silos and it is evident that more workers are now in multi-agency teams and managers often responsible for integrated services, which bring about new challenges of their own. Different professionals have their own agendas and thus power can play a huge part in collaborative working. The development of a learning culture as a staff team is the most effective way to bring professionals together for a common objective, not seeing difference as a barrier but as a celebration of diverse working for the same cause (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2015).

Marketisation essentially allows for the winning bidder to demonstrate ‘best value for money’, even when that means the quality of services may suffer (Jones, 2012). Neo-liberalism, a spawn of marketisation, champions an individualist culture, promoting a blame society where individuals are solely responsible for their destinies (Ball, 2012). To succeed, we must take risks, network often and use data to prove our worth and thus only have ourselves to blame should our efforts fail. By normalising entrepreneurial skills above youth work values and outsourcing youth services until they become diversionary activities, a distorted form of social control is achieved in which service-users become statistics to be weighed against targets (de St Croix, 2016). Furthermore, this victimises and supports the deficit model of young people, exaggerating the need to secure funding (Jeffs and Smith, 2010a).

Following the 2011 London riots, the coalition Government launched the Troubled Families programme (DCLG, 2012), which despite its oppressive title, managed to achieve a near 100% success rate. However, it is hardly surprising that local councils met targets efficiently, with a £4000 lump sum up for grabs for every pupil whose school attendance rose or when a parent returned to employment (Lepper, 2012). A payment-by-results method was clearly too tempting for some practitioners, with some local authorities including families to their score board who had bettered themselves without any programme intervention whatsoever (Bawden, 2015). More recently, neo-liberalism has allowed for the mismanagement of Kids Company, a high profile inner-city children’s charity, which when facing financial hardship, the government allowed to close down in 2015, leaving 36,000 deprived young people without support (BBC, 2016). In contrast, the state provided £100billion to bail out Northern Rock banks back in 2007. Hall and O’Shea (2013) argue that youth work policy (albeit a current vacuum) is dominated by neo-liberalist ideologies, privatising issues faced by the most vulnerable, further running up competition and tension between agencies.

Navigating the funding maze

In the current economic climate, successful youth work is judged by its return on investment, which explains why many open access youth centres led by young people, not the agendas of the state, struggle to shine through the bureaucracy that smothers them (de St Croix, 2016). Many would argue that social enterprises are acting as champions of the resistance, using the tools of neo-liberalism to take risks, make profit and reinvest back into community areas of need. However, social enterprises are driven by profit logic and workers often find they have to compromise their value base whilst still receiving low wages. Others suggest that by utilising volunteers, the profession can continue to grow and support young people. Although volunteers are graciously appreciated, relying on volunteers to work with often the most hard-to-reach young people de-professionalises the practice (Khan, 2013). We should be championing our right for professional status, not handing out an unpaid youth worker title to anyone who fancies playing football on a Monday night as an end in itself, as this is essentially why the practice has become so far detached from its originally aims in the first place (Jeffs & Smith, 2010).

Managers embrace the current funding landscape by finding a compromise that allows them to still meet the needs of young people without selling out their values. Tyler (2009:234) suggests managers should be ‘principled pragmatists’, in pursuit of success but cautious to unravel the pedagogy of the profession clearly misunderstood by many commissioners. Rather than seeing targets as limitations, they offer the chance to be creative and refocus work into something truly meaningful. Aiming High for Young People (DCLG, 2008) wanted young people to control 25% of their positive activity budget, thus harnessing the entrepreneurial skills of service-users. The power of youth agency should not be taken lightly and managers who are able to overcome the challenges of time and power sharing are finding that case studies and narrative enquiries capturing lived experiences can often be the way to a funder’s heart and wallet. By promoting praxis, young people can be involved in the ethical questions around funding projects, in order to avoid teaching young people how to ‘play the system’ and enable them to tackle directly the structural systems of oppression.

Reclaiming quality youth services

It is evident that the current political climate only allows for a youth service to roam within the linear pastures of a target-driven market (Nicholls, 2012). As a person-centred practice within a neoliberal system acting as both regulator and auctioneer, it is no surprise that as agents of social change, practitioners have incorporated playing the system: a 21st century revelation into praxis (Ball, 2012). The relationship between agency and structure is of an historical nature (Bradford, 2015). Though socio-political forces continue to both constrain and empower practice, the survival of the profession rests on the shoulders of managers who are able to prove their worth with a foresight for strategy and a passion for people over power. Managers must shed the business-led archetype, acknowledge competitors as potential partners, meet needs less sporadically and use the tools of marketisation to achieve autonomy. By creating services that boast social capital in practitioner expertise, outstanding impactful work can be achieved beyond physical resources (Douzinas, 2014). There is an evident relationship between policy and practice. However, politics often only conveys this in ideologically acceptable terms, not necessarily what works best for all parties and certainly not in the best interest of young people.

In order for the tide to turn, and youth work to be recognised as a distinct pedagogical approach to work with young people (NYA, 2018), the 21st century manager must be a campaigner. Arguably, government endorsement and policy is less essential compared to supporting the Institute for Youth Work’s (2018) goal for a regulated register of practitioners and the potential opening of frontiers into the Professional Standards Authority (2018). Once youth work has equity with other professional disciplines, we can increase value-driven professionals leading multi-disciplinary teams and co-create change in our communities in spite of commissioners, funders and government.

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Last Updated: 25 May 2018


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Jake Hampson is a Youth Worker for Nottinghamshire Clubs for Young People and Derbyshire County Council’s Donut Creative Arts Studio.

Tim Howell is a youth work and community development Lecturer in the Department of Social and Community Studies at University of Derby.