Article: Manifesto for Youth Work: Some afterthoughts on the role of the state

First Published: 6th May 2022 | Author: Bernard Davies | Tags: , , , ,

Bernard Davies takes us a step further with his 'after-thoughts' on his revised manifesto for youth work. Reflecting on the UK government's management of the CV19 pandemic, past youth policy interventions and Bernard's previous work with youth workers, it explores the dilemmas faced in the creation of open-access youth work while serving the interests of the state.

The revised version of my ‘Manifesto for Youth Work’ published in Youth and Policy in October last year (2021b) brought a response from a friend with a long track record in critical policy analysis. Though generally supportive, his challenging questions on its view of the state and how this actually operates in delivering services prompted me (yet again!) to go back to the Manifesto. What then became clear was that some key features of the state’s past and current role had indeed been left unexplored – not just in how it promotes a practice like open youth work but more widely.

The neo-liberal state – and beyond

As suggested by my friend’s feedback, the ‘after-thoughts’ which follow seek to look beyond the neo-liberal ideas shaping state policies and priorities to which the Manifesto gives primary attention. These, of course, remain hugely influential. The pandemic may have demonstrated that – as between February 2020 and July 2021, it ‘forked out’ £370 billion (Tooze, 2021) – only the state ultimately has the resources to respond to this kind of crisis. Indeed even private businesses normally deeply suspicious of ‘state interference’ seemed suddenly to discover that they too may need major injections of state money to save them from collapse (BBC, 2021; Hill, 2021; Partridge and Butler, 2021).

Yet, as all this was happening, a third of government spending was still being contracted out, helping to reduce public sector employment since 2009 from over 22 per cent to 17.5 per cent (Innes, 2021; Partington, 2022). Over the past two years, £37 billion of public money has been allocated to private companies to run anti-Covid programmes using procedures which, as this piece was being written, were being contested in the courts as illegal (Good Law Project, 2022). According to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, many of those programmes focused on test and trace failed to achieve their main objective (Gregory, 2021), with one actually proving dangerously ineffective (Mason, 2021).

Nonetheless, my friend is right: other wider critical questions need to be faced about whether, within our society as it is presently constituted, the state can provide services which are effective, safe – and appropriately sensitive to users’ needs. Indeed Covid-19 has not only exposed and exacerbated structural inequalities which have helped further embed deep suspicions of the state amongst many of those most affected (Harris, 2022). How the state is responding is in itself seen by some as dangerously authoritarian and oppressive – resulting, for example, in the young ‘being trained to accept that freedom is the possession of the State’(Taylor, 2021).  

The state as provider: some pre-history

Though usually narrower in their focus, criticisms of how the state operates are of course far from new. In relation to public services, these have particularly highlighted top-down bureaucratic and controlling structures and procedures for distributing, managing and accounting for resources resulting often in the distortion and even the squeezing out of the kinds of person-centred approaches central to a practice like open youth work.

To illustrate how far back these concerns go, my friend referenced a pamphlet published in 1979 and re-published as a book the following year (2021), whose title – In and Against the State – carried its own core message. Written not from a politically right-leaning perspective but by a working group of the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE), the preface to the first edition argued that, as ‘the state is not neutral’, the jobs of for example ‘social/community/advice/research workers’ had become ‘increasingly disciplined’. As a result, it suggested:

  • Resources we need involve us in relations we don’t.
  • …there has been ‘a centralisation of the state, a tightening of the relations of power. Fewer have … access to the processes of decision-making.
  • … the process whereby situations where we were or could be dealt with as a collective group are progressively changed so we are dealt with singly or as families.
  • … individuals are (therefore) forced to deal with the social problems outsourced by the state – of poverty, health, housing and indeed education’.

This system, the pamphlet concluded, was by then being implemented through ‘a hierarchy of power and decision-making … (which) includes the subordination of women and people of certain races and religions’.

Written in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Thatcherite election victory, some of In and Against the State’s language and conclusions can now read as dated. Overall, however, with a wide range of practitioners working within its structures its critique of the state’s role continued to resonate. To illustrate how this impacted specifically on youth work and youth workers I will draw on evidence from two ‘modest’ enquiries I carried out with Bryan Merton a little over a decade ago (2009; 2010). These sought to explore how in the post-1997 New Labour period managers and workers in twelve local authority Youth Services – all judged by OFSTED to be providing ‘good’ or ‘very good’ youth work – had experienced a range of state-driven ‘youth’ policies.

Youth policies – top-down

Some of these New Labour initiatives were inconsistent and even contradictory in their intentions and approaches, especially in the change-over from the Blair to Brown administrations. Many too, as I will argue later, were far from supportive of open youth work. Nonetheless, when considered in the aftermath of a decade-plus of austerity which has systematically deconstructed state services, their range and attempted reach are striking. Within an overall ‘new model of public services’ and ‘national Quality Standards for Positive Activities’ (HM Treasury, 2007), they increasingly required that provision be ‘joined-up’ in order to achieve some key aims. In New Labour language these included:

  • addressing ‘deprivation’ and ‘disadvantage’ as well as ‘unacceptable or illegal’ behaviour;
  • ensuring ‘early intervention’ and ‘targeted youth support’ for the ‘disengaged’, the ‘vulnerable’, the ‘at risk’ and ‘NEET’ young people;
  • laying down detailed ‘child protection’ procedures, including – a metaphor for required attendance -‘non-negotiable support’; 
  • encouraging young people’s ‘empowerment’; and
  • supporting ‘community cohesion’ and ‘preventing terrorism’.

Major state papers with highly ambitious titles – Every Child Matters, Aim High for Young People, Countering International Terrorism – sought to turn these aspirations into action. Specific measures for doing this included:

  • ‘Anti-social behaviour orders’ (‘ASBOs’), ‘acceptable behaviour orders’ and curfews – initially implemented via a 2005 ‘Respect Action Plan’ which was replaced in 2008 by a ‘Youth Task Force Action Plan’.
  •  A ‘Connexions Service’, staffed by ‘personal advisers’, whose initial brief included ‘to ensure that all youth service activity (including that of local authority Youth Services) is effectively co-ordinated, coherent and that gaps in provision are filled’.
  • Ring-fenced Youth Opportunities and Youth Capital Funds giving young people some real leverage on how some state-allocated funds were spent locally.

 Management and practice experience – bottom-up

In order to comply with these new policy requirements, responses to the two ‘modest enquiries’ indicated that some significant compromises had had to be made by both managers and face-to-face practitioners. After moving through a carefully negotiated ‘trust-winning relationships-building stage’, for example, a senior worker in one Service conceded that:

If the youth workers have a good relationship with the young people, it may not matter it’s not voluntary.

According to some of the managers interviewed:

We have open access in order to target…

… (targets) give us a focus – before we did whatever we did.;

You find a way to deliver … The monitoring is very painful but it’s worth it.  

– with one feeling the need to add the assurance: ‘We haven’t compromised our values…

Other views on how the policies and their imposed structures and procedures were impacting on direct practice were more explicitly critical. Managers in different local Services, for example, concluded that ‘youth work’s being stultified by poorly defined targets’ and that the move to targeting was only going to be achieved by ‘… budget cuts targeted at universal provision’. In one Service these shifts were seen as

… (generating) concern … amongst staff about the reduction in ‘bread and butter’ open sessions in order to increase more specialised work as this can mean some …young people miss out.

Often the most critical responses came from face-to-face workers, some focused particularly on the funding regimes emanating from the new polices:

There is so much short-termism

One-off projects – they’re more about PR

The impacts of these policies were seen as including that:

Youth work’s real intention is being squeezed out.

It’s harder to respond to young people’s expressed needs. Now it’s about ticking the boxes.

A few years ago it wasn’t all about accredited and recorded outcomes. They could choose to come. They had a lot of say. Now there’s pressure to put on a programme – for example a criminal justice programme.

As a result, according to one senior worker:

The meaning of youth work is being diluted…because all sorts of people are doing ‘youth work’ – for example, the community police are setting up youth clubs with little training or support…

And in sharp contrast to one manager’s assumption that

We’re expected to deliver the PVE (Preventing Violent Extremism) programme – we do it on our terms.

a face-to-face worker was blunt:

I was asked to run it as a youth programme. I refused to touch the money. We’ve got a lot more trouble young people stabbing each other – Asian and Black young people.

Some of the respondents were also clear about what for them was at the root of the problems. One manager for example commented on the creation of what were being called ‘Integrated Youth Support’ services:

… senior (local authority) managers don’t understand the youth work process

– while another in a senior role acknowledged that   

The problem is matrix-management – we don’t know who is who or who should be making decisions… devolved decisions but budgets not devolved.

For the voluntary sector, the new state structures could bring benefits such as, according to one full-time worker, access to more training and more opportunities to meet local authority officers. Others in the sector, however, had reservations. One manager for example commented that:   

(Though) it’s great to be included … voluntary organisations don’t have the time or resources to attend Common Assessment Framework (CAF) meetings, don’t get travel expenses …..CAFs are populated by county council staff and the voluntary sector don’t attend..

In response to one specific New Labour demand, a front-line worker also concluded:

(The politicians) have minimum understanding of the grass-roots issues for delivering youth work… For example weekend opening – it needs staffing.

Moreover, in contrast to the sector’s proud claims of continuing ‘independence’, another saw even wider risks:

We are being drawn into what feels more like a local authority agenda than a voluntary sector agenda.

Confronting the state

Notwithstanding these reservations and qualifications, as In and Against the State acknowledged, ‘as “clients” we need the resources the state offers’  – resources which are likely often to be the primary and often a crucial source of funding for vital services. How, then, might these be provided in ways which are responsive to those who use them and how they define their needs and problems?

For tackling this dilemma In and Against the State ‘look(ed) for ways of fighting back oppositionally – rather than simply defending a state we know is indefensible’. Though throughout locating its more specific proposals within an explicit class analysis, it described them only as ‘possible tactics’ – ‘small, fragmented and isolated’. Grounded in brief case studies illustrating how both workers in a range of agencies and service users such as tenants, benefit claimants and pensioners were implementing them, these for example included ‘Overcoming individualisation’, ‘Stepping outside the brief’ and ‘Rejecting managerial priorities’.

In a blog piece posted in September (2021a) I explored briefly what could be seen as a more strategic and up-to-date – indeed on-going – response to the state’s past shortcomings as a service provider: the ‘Preston model’ (Brown, 2021). Perhaps particularly significant because it is happening within the (local) state itself, its aspirations at times echo those of In and Against the State. Its initiators talk for example of ‘solving problems from below without permission from above’ and of ‘a meaningful transfer of wealth and power back to local communities’.

However, as I said in my blog piece, the Preston programme seems so far – and with good reasons – to have concentrated mainly on its economic dimensions. Its proposals for shifting those power dynamics within what it calls community support and solidarity, including welfare and social, cultural and leisure provision’ are less clear and seem less developed. It therefore – especially in the time of Covid – still leaves wide open to continuing debate the dilemma which was embedded in my friend’s original challenge: how a practice like open youth work can draw on state funding and other forms of state support often essential to young people’s as-of-right access to it without seriously compromising its distinctive person-centred ways of working?

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Last Updated: 14 June 2022


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