Youth Affairs Network of Qld (YANQ),
In preparation for upcoming State Youth Affairs Conference, Aug 21 -22nd, 2014
RBA is derived from protocols of financial accountability as a means to strengthen government’s capacity to manage service provision across the purchaser-provider divide, to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of government spending, and to increase accountability and transparency of public and community sector organizations. RBA in its various forms is broadly defined by three underpinning ideas: justifying service provision on the basis of outcomes; demonstrating these outcomes by data-based evidence, and assuming that setting target outcomes (‘results’) and measuring progress will improve the social service system.
I’ve been an avid part of and defender of the community driven youth sector and its allies since the mid-80s and I’m now truly alarmed by the increasing spread of government influence upon our ideologies, our practices, our agendas and dispirited by a convergence of attacks on these impacting at many different levels. In the 80s and 90s the youth and women’s services sectors in particular were forces to be reckoned with, nationally. We had a plethora of peaks (so many that there were even territorial disputes on occasions!), a robust, diverse and dynamic community sector and a view that encompassed much, much more than the provision of set services as being necessary to overcome the marginalisation and oppression which threatened young people, women or any other dispossessed group, for that matter. Sure, there were many community based agencies and individual practitioners who were more conservative than yours truly but we debated and hotly contested one another’s views and encouraged one another to be able to justify our respective positions from coherent, internally consistent, evidence based positions and in the end we (largely) respected and valued the idea of a diverse, practical, no nonsense sector with the combined aim of improving the lot for those who most mattered – young people. In fact, the strongest imperative back then was for all of us to place young people at the forefront of what we were trying to do and to stay true to their visions, their aspirations and above all to social justice however we saw it for our constituents.
I believe NGOs still can, in fact, challenge funding bodies and accountability systems and not be de-funded – BUT we need the vision and the critical mass to do so! Its tiring and time-consuming to continue advocating for this at the individual level we seem to have been reduced to in 2014, especially in an age where Managers and governing Boards are becoming increasingly distanced from “clients” and staff and hooked on the lure of securing funding “at any cost” or justifying taking on almost impossibly flawed contracts “because we are the best placed agency to do so and have the best chance of resurrecting some of it to benefit our clients more than our competitors will be able to.” Very few agencies are now able to claim “we are seeking this funding because young people (or old people or families or remote communities) told us this is the best way to address their circumstances,” let alone “because it is their right to have it.” Yet these were amongst the fundamental premises that our feminist women’s shelters & rape crisis centres and our first youth services were founded upon.
A couple of years ago I was asked to visit a remote Aboriginal community and clean out a large store-room. It was brimful of documents belonging to a now defunct Corporation which had been dispossessed by the radical changes to local government implemented by the NT government in remote Aboriginal communities at the same time as “The Intervention” was being “rolled out” by the Commonwealth in 2007. Amidst the mouse poo and dead cockroaches ran a story of increased “accountability measures” and paper work. I could literally see when the community organisation got its first computer and how much funding contracts and acquittals had changed from the early 90s to the present day. Early contracts and activity reports were a few pages long but by the turn of the century they had become epic tomes, framed in legalese and mired by bureaucratic requirements.
These restrictive and bureaucratic measures had not led to any significant benefits to the community. They did not lead to new houses, to a sustainable local workforce or to better services and supports for this deeply marginalised group of Aboriginal people. They increased the need for non-Indigenous managers to be employed to manage all the “white tape” (and “red tape”) whilst lacking the required type of accountabilities to ensure these visiting managers were competent and ethical let alone having the capacity to work well cross-culturally. Increasingly inappropriate and unnecessarily onerous reporting requirements and contract acquittals had effectively provided all levels of (external) government with the evidence which ultimately led to the NT government, backed by the Feds, declaring all the 200+ individual Councils which used to run municipal, essential, social and other services in their own communities as lacking sufficient governance to do so regardless of current or previous levels of ‘functionality’. These independent Councils were replaced by Super Shires which were supposed to pave the way to more cost efficient, better services for some of the most marginalised individuals and families in Australia. Seven years on and the Super Shire model has been so emphatically rejected by the communities themselves that the NT government is now backtracking and trying to re-vitalise local council groups, but still controlled by a regional group… whether these local councils have the power they once had remains to be seen.
Why am I telling this story? Because there is a growing body of evidence which clearly demonstrates that the dominant paradigm within current accountability regimes which control youth, Indigenous and community services are based solely from government perspectives and too often are failing the very people they claim to be providing better support for. The vibrancy, diversity and flexibility which envigourated the youth sector are being constrained within a narrowing definition of ‘service delivery’ and a range of rights based, person centred, voluntary & culturally respectful practices are being replaced by the clamour for “accountability,” “value for money” and a raft of concepts which belong squarely with the For Profit and business sectors in our society. Simultaneously there are well evidenced alternative responses to marginalised groups and individuals which have a better chance of decreasing the growing divide between the “haves” and “have nots” across Australia and which are being ignored or discounted by “the powers that be.”
No-one in the youth sector challenges the notion of being accountable, especially to young people. However, accountability can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. So-called “intangibles” like ‘relationships,’ ‘respect’ and ‘going the extra mile for young people’ which grass roots youth workers claim to be the hallmarks or distinguishing factors of their occupation are either not able to be reflected (or quantified) within funder designed data sets or are dismissed as being irrelevant, “airy fairy” or too difficult to explain to politicians, Treasury and funding bodies eager for quick wins. Simplistic statements like “100 meals were provided to homeless young people in the <insert name of marginal electorate> region” tell only a partial story. How many homeless young people missed out on meals? Were they provided in a compassionate or a judgemental way? Were they the sort of meals the young people wanted? Were there other things some homeless young people wanted or needed more than the meal they were provided with? How was homelessness defined? … And so on…
If you are – or have been - a grass roots practitioner I suspect I’m not telling you anything you don’t know already.
It was my privilege to do a round of consultations with YANQ in 2012 which led to the first definition of youth work in Queensland. In the process of defining and clarifying what they did and the distinguishing features of their work with young people, workers and managers from every group I listened to, whether regional or metropolitan, Murri or mainstream, raised - without prompting - factors like ‘inflexible funding models,’ ‘management’ and ‘restrictive data sets’ as hampering what they considered to be appropriate responses to young people. Here is a small sample of the many comments to this effect which were made throughout these consultations:
· Youth Workers remain constant with the young people – government and funding agendas might change so we adapt too but always trying to keep the focus on the young person in a genuine way – not being gammin. This is becoming more difficult – a lot depends on who is employed in positions (managers have a lot of influence), what the particular funding bucket is and what other government strategies are impacting on the service or agency at the time.
· Funding needs to be based on young people’s choice rather than being so outcomes driven.
· Children’s services has shrunk to become child protection.
· There are now uniform ways of collecting client consent, etc., which often involve lots of paperwork & can be intrusive. Our [smaller/independent] organisation was able to come up with a form and process where we could get clear about confidentiality early with the young person & without reams of paperwork. Larger organisation workers can be stuck with generic ways of doing things because of the organisation’s requirement to do things uniformly for the organisation rather than doing them in correct context for their “clients” or listening to the workers responsible for providing the services.
· We need to increase our focus on young people’s rights – these have become overshadowed by problems and the focus on funding for particular concerns or strategies rather than rights.
· We do that bit extra. Then there is no place to record it. We have the best, most user friendly data base I’ve ever worked with in terms of entering the data and getting it formatted and sent off for reports and so we have summaries of what we’ve done. BUT as well as meeting all the program objectives we do a lot of other things with young people that are necessary to overall success and that are legitimate work to be recorded. Or we do extra things that might be a bit outside the norm that we still support. Then there is no place to record them.
There were also many comments about how “Case Management” is too restrictive and controlling to be considered the key practice framework from which youth workers were expected to deliver services. Many Youth Workers deplored its limited approach and the increasing divide between “Case Managers” and “Case Workers”, with the former being less likely to understand the depth and reality of the situation which was impacting upon individual young people and the latter often having limited structural power in the organisation to influence the decisions made by the managers.
All of the above comments illustrate the shrinking of holistic, flexible approaches to youth work into pre-determined “outcomes” which reflect increasingly conservative, reactive, short term government agendas and concerns. Moreover, evidence documented by YANQ shows that the damaging impact of this is greater for Murri young people, youth workers and services than mainstream.
The above examples and comments no doubt ring true at a grass roots level but may be construed as being “too subjective” and lacking a more substantive evidence base. So it was with great relief that I came across a paper which exposes outcomes based funding and in particular the growing reliance on RBA as a legitimate planning and evaluation tool as limiting, unreliable and inappropriate for a sector such as community services or youth work and which also contains a number of other useful references adding weight to their research. The paper is Keevers, L., Treleaven, L., Sykes, C. & Darcy, M. (2012). Made to measure: taming practices with results-based accountability. Organization Studies, 33 (1), 97-120. It is published by the University of Woollongong and available on line through its open access repository. The authors debunk the theory that results based accountability (RBA), imported from the For Profit business sector - or similar processes - are appropriate and objective or unbiased methods of planning for service provision and/or measuring its impact. Moreover, the researchers contest that much valuable information is simply not counted or is deemed irrelevant by the very act of implementing RBA in the first place. Convincing evidence is provided which demonstrates that the very practices which contribute to a “social justice” led response to youth concerns are de-valued and morphed into a watered down, barely recognisable iteration of what workers – and young people – know to be those most valued by the community based NGO sector and which have proven critical to our successes.
At an International level there is also the body of work being collected by the In Defence of Youth Work (IDYW) movement in the UK which is doing its best to turn around the blinkered thinking which is pervading the voluntary, rights driven practices which youth workers know to have the best chance of enabling young people to be afforded the services and supports they require. Their members have taken the Outcomes Based agenda firmly to task and have many salient points to make in refuting the claims that they are ‘Lefties’ from a bygone era clearly not keeping pace with the latest theories underpinning adolescent development and wellbeing. Or to accept as a fait accompli the political and funding landscape in which they – and young people – find themselves. Along with many other posts is an interview with Tony Taylor, one of their leaders and titled Threatening Youth Work : the Illusion of Outcomes http://indefenceofyouthwork.com/background-reading-food-for-thought/ In the UK, members of this advocacy group now “ponder whether there is a youth work manager left who might envisage a practice with young people not harnessed to prescribed outcomes. It seems we cannot contemplate an encounter with young people that is not scripted in advance….[Youth Work] is a tradition which is volatile and voluntary, negotiated through and shaped by young people's agendas not just the State's. It is a tradition founded on a relationship forged from below, not insisted upon from above.”
An insightful collection of narratives by youth workers has also been compiled by the In Defence of Youth Work group and can be found at http://indefenceofyouthwork.com/the-stories-project/. These stories contain no simple answers; they don’t highlight success stories and they are not a thinly disguised attempt by individual agencies to crow about their successes and win favours with funders that too many conference presentations, program and promotional materials have become. Nor are they funder orchestrated one-size-fits-all “professional development” resources designed to implement new programs. The IDYW vignettes tell the real stories of contemporary youth work in the UK. They convey the complexity in marginalised young people’s lives and the concomitant requirement for us as practitioners, as advocates for the dispossessed, to remain real about what we are doing to address this.
So what are we going to do to address this in Australia? In Queensland? In the here and now? Our national youth peak was defunded in June without even a whimper let alone a cry of public outrage and at a time when the Federal government is instituting a budget which will further marginalise and impoverish those young people across our nation who already have the most to lose. The lone defender of RBA I’ve spoken with across Australia says their agency hasn’t found it much of a problem because they have inspired and creative management. I am aware of & inspired by the handful of agencies and their managers and board members in my small community and of others around Australia who continue to re-shape shrinking funding sources to best advantage young people or other marginalised groups in their communities. I also lament the loss of time which could have been spent on more worthwhile pursuits and which is wasted by our remaining creative managers, governing boards and report writers attempting to fit square pegs into round holes. I’ve lost count of conversations with colleagues about time spent undertaking reporting and acquittals at the expense of actually completing the project or task being funded and ironically, with the knowledge at best that the reporting we are doing often fails to convey the complexity or reality of our work and at worst is an inappropriate measure of its effectiveness. We seem truly to be disintegrating into a mish-mash of individual, disempowered services and agencies rather than uniting around the common concerns we have as a sector and taking action to address this. I’m increasingly questioning the value in securing funding if it’s difficult to adapt it to provide the actual services or programs which we know are in the best interests of young people, other than to feather our own nests or to actively contribute to the ongoing need for our ‘industry’ to exist in the first place.
I have been thinking about this a lot and it troubles me, deeply. It is my firm belief that with solidarity comes power. There are things we can do individually, at an agency level and at a sector-wide level to stem the tide of attacks on young people and on our NGO sector. I’m keen to discuss these more widely and am looking forward to hearing more from Tony Taylor, one of the instigators of the In Defence of Youth Work movement when we meet at YANQs State Youth Affairs Conference in Brisbane in August.
In the 80s one of our catch cries as feminists was turn fear into anger and turn anger into action. Let’s converge at YANQs Conference next month and together let’s develop real strategies to address the increasingly entrenched, individualistic policies and strategies so often imported from the “for profit” or business sectors, such as RBA and Outcomes Based funding and which are undermining the very constituents they claim to be supporting.
 Keevers, L., Treleaven, L., Sykes, C. & Darcy, M. (2012). Made to measure: taming practices with results-based accountability. Organization Studies, 33 (1), 97-120, Uni of Woolongong on line repository
 Archer, Liz, (2012) Are We There Yet? Findings from the “What Is Youth Work? Consultations, YANQ,