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Article:

In Defence of YAG work? Creating and maintaining spaces for area based Youth Services partnerships.

Author: Jonathan Gunter Tags:Partnerships, Youth Work Curriculum, Youth Work

In this article Jonathan Gunter discusses community based youth services partnerships called Youth Action Groups. He introduces their origin and reflects on the key reasons why they appeared to be so effective and popular. More recent developments in their delivery post Covid-19 are discussed and he outlines some of the conditions that can maximise their effectiveness and some of the risks which can undermine this. The conclusion is drawn that with the right approach, locally based youth services partnerships really can have a strong impact on local youth services and young people.

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Introducing YAGs...

This article discusses an area based youth services partnership called a Youth Action Group (YAG). It focuses on the positive impact that this form of partnership can have on youth services and young people within a locality. It draws on PhD research conducted between 2010 and 2017, plus more recent data which identified approximately a ninety percent decrease in Anti Social Behaviour in one locality within a period of approximately three months (as reported by South Wales Police). This article focuses on the work of a Local Authority youth service department, Cardiff Youth Service, and recognises their efforts to continue a local policy arrangement that was initiated within a branch of the National Community Regeneration Programme, Communities First.  The article illustrates some of the key conditions for getting the most out of these groups but also presents findings relating to some of the threats which can negatively affect their impact.

The Youth Action Group (YAG) was the name of a sub group of a Communities First partnership that was based in a locality in a city of South Wales. To provide context, the Communities First programme itself was a government funded national community regeneration initiative that was set up in 2001 and ran for approximately seventeen years. A key motive behind establishing these partnerships was that ‘Joined up thinking’ and partnership working could allow for issues to be tackled collectively (SEU, 1998) in the recognition that synergy would enable services to stem or even reverse generational cycles of poverty left by decades of deindustrialisation (SEU, 1998). The programme’s focus was to build partnerships which were geographically based in the location they served and were aimed to be based on a ‘three thirds’ membership principle which sought to involve equal membership from the statutory, voluntary and community sectors. These groups consulted with their communities in order to identify local needs and to develop action plans to address them. The partnerships could also have ‘sub groups’ and one example of such a sub group, within a partnership based in an urban area of South Wales, focussed on local youth services and young people. It was known locally as the Youth Action Group or YAG.

 

The YAG meetings were held on approximately a monthly basis and took place in various community buildings throughout the locality. Partners included local residents, volunteers, youth workers, managers of community and youth centres and programme managers from the Local Authority. The group was initially set up for service providers, volunteers and residents to discuss and plan youth issues and youth activities in their community. The YAGs tended to be chaired by a single person but the option of rotating the meeting’s chair person was always made available. A key moment in the lifespan of this first YAG was shortly after the group was formed in 2006 and partners undertook the planning of a Halloween event. Many of the partners who were involved in the event’s delivery were initially disappointed with some aspects of it, including its attendance. It was discussed in the following YAG meeting as a form of reflective practice. Initially within that meeting, many of the partners spoke of being despondent and disappointed with the event. As discussion continued and partners reflected on what took place many began to recognise just how much had been achieved as a collective and that the lessons from delivering the event could serve as a platform to build upon for future projects. At this point something special happened. The partnership transformed from being a collection of individuals to a group, with partners thinking and acting like a team. In literature, Putnam (2000) would describe this process as bonding social capital. It is this collective team dynamic that was initiated sixteen years ago that lasted many years and still exists today.

The functions of YAGs

A number of functions of the YAG partnership have been identified. These include having the opportunity for the planning and management of the area’s youth services, for practitioners to reflect on their practice and to learn about the services delivered.  Opportunities for support and advice and to exchange information with each other were also functions of the group. Many partners felt that they benefited from having access to individuals and groups with strong local knowledge and experience. Partners were encouraged to update the group about their services and issues affecting them. This was useful not only because attendees could learn about local services and issues affecting the area’s young people, but it also served to build the sense of involvement and ownership of the group. This was a particularly valuable process for volunteers and residents as it served to break down barriers between themselves and those in more formal roles, such as managerial level staff from the Local Authority. Indeed the meetings generated a sense of cohesion between the area’s youth organisations and, as described above, a level of social unity had been created between them which linked the different youth organisations, practitioners and volunteers who were both from within and outside of the area. This supported links between individuals and groups from different backgrounds and therefore, in addition to the creation of bonding social capital, it may be argued that Bridging Social Capital links were created (Putnam, 2000).

Since 2018, the Communities First Programme came to an end and the Local Authority Statutory Youth Service took on the role of managing the YAG. It had also begun developing new YAGs throughout the city. In 2021 a YAG was established in another locality in Cardiff at the tail end of the Covid-19 Pandemic. These meetings took place online and the sessions, with an initial membership of four, expanded to involve over fifteen regular partners within several months. What is striking is the data from South Wales Police that illustrates a dramatic fall in Anti Social Behaviour calls since the partnership was started. Anti-social behaviour calls reduced from an average of twenty six per month down to only three calls per month within three months, and remained consistently low over the following eighteen months. These figures, which resonate with the performance of the first YAG that was set up in 2006, suggest that there are characteristics of these partnerships which can have sizeable positive impacts on youth services and young people.

Weighing up the impact of YAGs

 

While there are clearly potential positive impacts of YAGs on youth services, they arguably cannot and should not be expected to be a panacea for all of society’s ills. For example, it is widely acknowledged that partnerships cannot be expected to reverse the negative impacts of poverty, which is understood to be a consequence of wider structural forces (Byrne, 2010; Adamson, 2015). However, there is agreement in literature that partnerships can be regarded as effective in challenging processes of structural inequality (Balloch and Taylor, 2010) and some of the ways this can be achieved is clearly a consequence of the networks and social capital links that partnerships such as Youth Action Groups can help to create. While the PhD research informing this article has described some of the key benefits of YAGs, the remainder of the article focuses on the approach to their delivery and ways in which these strengths can be supported or undermined. This is about the relationship between statutory, voluntary and community sectors when conducting these groups. This bears particular relevance to principles and philosophies in youth work and as such the article draws the conclusion that, with the appropriate conditions, youth services, with decades of experience in defending principles in practice (Davies, 2007), may be well placed in coordinating the delivery of these groups.

 

As described so far, processes of bonding and bridging social capital were created and maintained as a result of the YAG meetings. A group ethos developed between partners from different (elements of the three thirds) sectors which had a spill over impact on local services’ capacity to plan and coordinate youth services delivery. This team dynamic was achieved when partners had a common goal to work towards and when trust was built between them. Partners did however have differing reasons for involvement in the group and there tended to be salient differences in the motives of those from community, statutory and voluntary sectors. These differences are understandable given the varying contexts and circumstances in which the different ‘sectors’ operated. For example key reasons why voluntary and community sector organisations attended were for the opportunity to share information and resources and to collaboratively work together. For voluntary organisations alone, this could also be desirable in order to fulfil requirements of partnership working that may be set by funders. Statutory partners also shared many of these priorities. Although some in these statutory roles, tended to adopt a managerial stance in their approach to the group and would focus on seizing opportunities to disseminate local policy matters. These included the monitoring of outcomes, raising safeguarding issues and implementing local policy programmes. Again these matters can be of importance to many partners of the YAG, but it tended to be the Local Authority partners that would assume responsibility for implementing them.

Key conditions to optimising their success...

 

Widely agreed and recognised strengths of the YAG which made them regarded as so effective by their stakeholders have already been discussed on pages two and three and include their role in strengthening an area’s services, the improved coordination of services and creating a network which existed outside of the context of the meetings. The issue with there being competing priorities and agenda’s sought by different partners was that these partnerships risked drifting towards operating in ways that could impede on the very functions that tended to make them effective; especially as these partnerships are often comprised of individuals and groups with varying roles and degrees of power.

 

A key condition which supports the effectiveness of these groups concerns partners having equal opportunity to share matters at the meetings. This is because it makes a powerful statement about the inclusive principles of the group which creates the foundations for relationship building and trust. It is this principle that is so pivotal to generating a collective team dynamic and therefore enabling processes of bonding and bridging social capital to take place. Furthermore it was useful for community residents and members of small voluntary groups who could often feel alienated when attending meetings which are also attended by more formal professionals. This is because having equal opportunity to contribute helped to break down barriers by forming a level of rapport and trust between partners of different roles and backgrounds. Given that a widely recognised strength of these groups was their capacity to create a network, creating time and space for all partners to contribute to the meetings is crucial to achieving their involvement. As such, for those in positions of relative power such as those in statutory managerial roles, a key take home message is to allow sufficient time and space for conversations to take place which are so crucial to building relationships and developing a strong partnership network.

 

In order for information sharing to take place a potential solution is for information to be presented in ways that does not detrimentally dominate the core focus of the group. A suggested way of overcoming this may be to arrange ‘guest slots’ in which partners can deliver presentations on issues which can serve as a valuable information sharing role. This ensures that the information is shared on a time limited basis and cannot over dominate the core focus of the meetings. Nonetheless YAGs provide a very important opportunity for information from the statutory sector to be shared. They also provide a valuable network and point of contact for statutory services to share what may be considered important information for youth services and the safety of young people. As such it is how this information is presented, not what information is presented that is important. This principle is almost exactly identical to a principle in youth work known as ‘Process versus Outcome’ (Ord, 2007). It is the content of the meetings and the process, rather than treating the group as an opportunity to serve other’s agendas that is so crucial to its success.

 

A second key condition for YAGs in supporting their effective delivery is for the meetings to be primarily focussed on community and practice level matters rather than being chiefly focussed on managerial and policy level issues, for example through partners participating in the direct planning and discussion of activities and events in the locality. This is because it is the delivery of these ground-level matters, which comprise the central purpose of the group and enable the group’s functions to take place. This can create a somewhat challenging juxtaposition for Local Authority partners in managerial positions who have roles such as in the implementation of local policy, the monitoring of outcomes or communicating messages of public safety information. This is because while these matters are arguably of key importance, sufficient time and space needs to be given for partners to participate in the very activities that allow the group to function. Otherwise the group can risk becoming dominated by managerial level matters and this reduces the time available to discuss and plan what is taking place at the community and practice level. Furthermore it undermines the perceived purpose of the group which is core to partners’ attendance. It is the creation of a partnership network which exists outside of the meetings which underpins the effectiveness of the group and this has little chance of being strong if the partnership is poorly attended. Therefore a careful balance needs to be struck in delivering and achieving these priorities. Again a take home message for those involved in the delivery of such partnerships would be to allow sufficient time and space for ground level matters to be discussed.

 

Conclusion

 

In conclusion YAGs can strengthen youth services and allow them to be more coordinated. But these partnerships need to be delivered in ways that allow these benefits to take place. Youth Action Groups can play a key role in bringing together locally based services including residents from community groups, practitioners and managers from a range of backgrounds serving as a network junction or hub. How YAGs are delivered, who calls the shots and what is discussed in the meetings, must be sensitive and responsive to all partners of the group if we are to be realistic about sustaining partnerships that are effective in genuinely, rather than tokenistically, supporting youth services. If we can achieve this, then Youth Action Groups really can play a key role in strengthening work with young people in our communities.

Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community.

New York/ London: Simon and Schuster.

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