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Reflections on an existential crisis


At the Centre for Youth Impact, we had something of an existential crisis at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It turns out that a good theory of change does not constitute an effective emergency response, and evaluation probably won’t save the world on this occasion. It still matters though, and we are not alone in reflecting on evaluation during the pandemic – its role, how to do it at a distance, and how to adapt in the face of rapidly changing plans. NPC and Evaluation Support Scotland are amongst those who have been giving detailed thought to these questions, and have published a range of resources to support and inform. 

Never waste a good existential crisis though, I say. It’s created some interesting challenges in how we think and work, and I hope that some might represent permanent shifts. Specifically, I’ve been wondering whether there’s an even more profound opportunity for framing evaluation in the youth sector. 

If ever there was a time for pre-determined outcomes to take a back seat, this is it. I mean that not just in measurement terms, but also in how the youth sector thinks and talks about what it does. Right now, day to day work with and for young people is necessarily governed by incredibly short timescales (largely led by the current ‘phase’ of the coronavirus response, and in anticipation of the next) and levels of uncertainty that make our pre-COVID lives look almost totally predictable. Youth organisations’ ‘sphere of influence’ has also shrunk dramatically: the heavy limitations on how they can engage with young people, and the overwhelming impact of the pandemic on every aspect of young people’s lives means that youth workers have very limited scope to ‘act’ and effect change. No longer does it make sense to talk about ‘delivering programmes’ or ‘projects’ with set outcomes, all of which requires a level of confidence in predicting the future and a stability in the parameters that inform our collective work. But neither does this mean we should throw our hands up in despair.
If we park outcomes, programmes and projects for a moment, what are we left with? My feeling is that this context returns us to the underpinning ‘core’ purposes of youth work: offering safe space, ‘association’ (friendship, connection and community) and trusted relationships. At the present moment, it makes little sense to wrap these up in the language we’ve come to associate with youth provision – this is a rare opportunity to align intention with action, and to name both very clearly. Safe space, association and trusted relationships have always been at the heart of good youth work (and other forms of youth provision) but they have often been over-shadowed by the ‘wrapping’ we put around them: the interests of the funder or sponsor, the attractive activities on offer, the catchy title…  
As a consequence, evaluation and monitoring has also come to focus on these things too. A theory of change is more likely to reference participation in sports than feelings of safety, for example. What gets mentioned, gets measured. 
So, for me, this period is an opportunity to make a very deliberate return to those underpinning concepts, not just in how we think about and practice evaluation but simply in how we use language. If the context means we can’t – and shouldn’t – always focus on impact, we must focus on what we intend to do (and why), and whether we do it. 
This is not purely a COVID-prompted train of thought. Our experience of working on the Youth Investment Fund learning project has highlighted the importance of understanding how young people engage in open access youth work, what they experience, and what provision is offering them. This has consistently been more meaningful than how ‘projects’ are described initially. Similarly, our pilot of the Youth Programme Quality Intervention (YPQI) is focused entirely on ‘markers of quality’ in youth work provision – and these in turn focus entirely on safe spaces, supportive and engaging environment, and positive relationships. The project or programme is less important than how it ensures a consistent approach to quality in the foundation elements of youth work practice. 
So, what’s next? We’re taking a two-pronged approach to this. Firstly, we’re doing some work on common language and definitions to help us to collectively articulate what we’re offering to young people and how. Secondly, we’re working on the legacy of the Youth Investment Fund and the ongoing pilot of the YPQI to refine and test approaches to evaluation that are centred on these common elements of practice. Drop us a line if you’d like to know more.