Having a ‘Youth Participation Quality Mark’ is one way to indicate that #youthvoice is being heard AND making a difference to an organisation. Having certification, or an award, will indicate the degree to which youth-participation is: a) ‘taking place’ b) ‘meaningful’ and c) ‘fit for purpose’, be it consultation, co-design, or participation in scrutiny and decision-making. 

“Register your interest in this project or feedback to info@youngvoicesheard.org.uk with your name/role/org recommending good practice examples and sharing a #youthvoice view for what quality looks like – go to our QM Project page for latest news and draft resources”.

Young Voices Heard is launching a Quality Assurance project that it hopes will lead to a new set of national standards for engagement, participation, and impact. Working with a network of independent young advisors, including #iwill ambassadors, #democracychampions and #youthparticipation specialists, we intend to research and review the traditional existing benchmarks, to produce a new framework that is accessible to both organisations and young participants, verified with accreditation from an independent youth panel. The goal is for any third party – user/ visitor/ funder/ inspector/ media, can immediately see the extent of its commitment to youth participation in practice by looking for a Quality Mark and/or checking a central register of practice. For example, whether an organisation recruits young trustees to its board, how many and to what proportion.

Having young voices heard and participating in decision-making are key to empowering young people to effect change in society. This vision and action research towards a youth-led national quality framework/mark, is part of our response to the #iwill campaigns Power of Youth Challenge, to empower greater youth voice in, and leadership of, social action in organisations. We want to rise to the challenge of ensuring empowering is meaningful and measured.

The resulting framework would apply to the public, private and voluntary sectors. We know quality youth participation matters to young people – to know whether their views are being valued and making a difference. Its no longer enough to be heard, or for young views to be taken into account, nor is it enough or be hailed as the leaders of tomorrow – why wait? Young people want action today, but how are they and others to judge the level and quality of participation?

Not all young people want to participate in organisations. Some want to lobby from the outside to campaign, so that those who are responsible ‘step up’ listen and respond, so that they, as children and young people, can get back to preparing for the future they will inherit. There are also those who want to do more now, to contribute and be part of the solution, taking part in design, decision-making, and governance, the ‘leaders’ of today. There needs to be a widely recognised mechanism and quality mark that show how and when both these young voices can be heard. It ensures youth participation activities are genuine and go beyond being interesting and educational, and guards against window dressing, tokenism, transitory participation without lasting impact.

As consumers, we are already used to user-feedback tools, online reviews, and star-ratings, in helping us to make judgments about quality. We expect them to be independent and benchmarked. So why not apply these principles to consumers and stakeholders of youth participation?

We propose that there are two steps to a Quality Mark 1. An internal self-assessment tool – that records feedback from existing young participants as evidence, that is externally verified with a commentary, and 2. An external assessment, using evidence from users and stakeholders, highlighting impact and quality. This is not intended to replace any existing qualify assurance frameworks used by some youth services, but to incorporate and build on them, and to particularly record quality against standards that young people prioritise and define as meaningful.

For Example:

The Young Trustees Movement, hosted by the Social Change Agency and supported by a progressive alliance of funders, aims to promote greater participation of young people onto Boards. This is a brilliant idea – bringing together pledges and resources, networking champions together in a common cause. However, going forward, how do we distinguish between well-meaning tick box inclusion that is ineffective and age-diverse parity of participation. Are young people recruited as part of a quota, or as part of a holistic governance strategy with a diverse range of complementary skills, experience, and networks on a board that is fit for purpose?

Multi-level participation:

Participation can take place at different levels -such as having an input into recruitment; service design; and delegated decision-making on grants, budgets, policy and procedures? Young people can get involved in one-off activities – such as being especially recruited to judge awards (pictured). You don’t have to be on a board to be influential. In a few, but growing number of examples – an organisation is entirely youth-run. I’m aware of at least five promoting youth participation in society and citizenship, that have been founded by young people aged under 25, since 2014.

Example: Children Young People Now magazine recruit young people to be judges of it annual Awards. Their votes have equal weight to those of the adult panel.

Transparency – information about how participation is taking place, and it impact, could be more transparent and published in a way that is accessible to those whom young people. For example, the British Youth Council publishes who and how it recruits to its Youth Select Committee inquiries, which are held in public, transcribed in Hansard, and broadcast on Parliament TV. Their website shows all the written evidence submitted and the final report, along with the Governments response is made public online and to the media. Another example, by comparison, is where the Government, at DCMS, introduced a Youth Policy Steering Group to inform and influence policy, as part of its Civil Society Strategy, in a one year pilot from April 2019. However its unclear how often it met, what was discussed, and what impact it has had on whom. Hopefully, the promised evaluation will be shared later in 2020, so that we can learn is those taking part found it effective what lessons we call all learn and how best the model can be updated and continue.

To sum up – greater youth participation sounds like a great idea, but ‘greater’ must mean more than just “more of it” and be ‘great’ quality verified by transparent scrutiny. So far, young people have told me that ‘participation’ must be more ‘recognisable’ ‘accessible’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘powerful’ and decision-makers need to be more ‘accountable’, ‘transparent’, ‘give feedback’ so that meaningful youth voice and participation means – ‘making a difference’. These, I would suggest, are just some of the foundations on which a quality mark can be built.

Young Voices Heard is looking for backers for this project, as well as young people willing and able to contribute to it? Please contact us a info@youngvoicesheard.org.uk referencing this article /

James Cathcart

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