An exploration of how local authorities can get young people involved in decision-making.
Young people are well aware that the decisions politicians make affect them. Yet they also feel marginalised from the political system.
This sense of exclusion can be tackled by providing real opportunities for young people to have a say in decisions that impact on their lives and communities. This guide shows how local authorities and others can begin to involve young people in the democratic process effectively and meaningfully. It details the challenges involved and, through illustrative case studies, demonstrates solutions and why they have been effective.
Concerns about the democratic process and a wide range of specific policy initiatives (such as Best Value, Connexions and the Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy) have led many local authorities to look at ways of enhancing young people's involvement in local decision-making. A study carried out by the Institute for Public Policy Research explored the challenges that local authorities may face when seeking to involve young people in local governance and potential solutions. It found:
Young people are well aware that decisions made by politicians affect them yet there is much evidence to show that they feel cut off from the political process. One young person in this study commented:
"Tony Blair says 'I will do this and we will make this better' but I haven't seen him come up to us and ask us what we want."
The Quality Protects and Connexions initiatives specifically require involvement of young people. In addition, many councils are committed to including young people in decision-making around other policy priorities such as Best Value, the Community Strategy, Local Strategic Partnerships, local Public Service Agreements, the Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy and the New Deal for Communities programme.
This study aimed to provide a map of the challenges that local authorities may face when engaging young people in decision-making and suggests solutions to overcome them.
The need to engage young people is clear. In the 2001 general election the overall turnout of 59 per cent was the lowest recorded figure since 1918. Voting among young people was lower still. Estimates suggest that turnout fell to approximately 39 per cent among 18- to 24-year-olds (The Electoral Commission, 2001). There is also evidence that young people are not likely to get more interested in voting as they get older (British Social Attitudes 16th Report, 1999).
Local election results make for equally depressing reading. But it is at the local level that issues such as crime, housing and education can feel more real and relevant for young people. One young person included in the research said of local government:
"It affects us more directly, it's where we are".
'Politics' may have negative associations for young people but the research shows that this does not make them apathetic. Common issues of concern include crime, personal safety, education, facilities for young people, the environment and housing. Young people may feel disconnected from political debate and decision-making but they are interested in a wide range of political issues. There is genuine enthusiasm for playing a part in decision-making.
"Politics can be really petty ... but the decisions they make are important for the public." (Participant in 15- to 16-year-olds' focus group)
Government is also clear about the need for local authorities to experiment with new ways of involving the public in service delivery and policy-making. Enhancing dialogue between local authorities and their communities is seen as important in order to develop a new relationship based on mutual understanding and trust.
Meeting this challenge is not easy. Involving young people in decision-making requires different approaches. There is a danger with any consultation or involvement exercise that local authorities opt for those who are easily reached. As a result the needs of some groups, particularly those who are most excluded, can be overlooked. Mainstream involvement and consultation mechanisms may not be enough to reach some groups, including young people.
A survey of local authorities in England and Wales (carried out by the study in conjunction with the LGA) found a lot of commitment already to involving young people:
However, less than one in three local authorities responding to the survey evaluated the impact of initiatives involving young people in decisions.
The research identified four crucial stages in developing initiatives to involve young people:
1. Creating the right environment
4. Follow up
Below are some of the main challenges and suggested solutions at each stage (the full report offers more detail in these areas).
Stage 1: Creating the right environment
Involving young people effectively requires the right structures, systems and resources to be in place in the early stages.
Stage 2: Planning
At the planning stages there are a number of factors to consider.
Stage 3: Doing
Stage 4: Follow up
To be effective, councils need to follow through on their commitment to young people by ensuring that involvement exercises have an impact on services and on practice.
Interviewees confirmed that involving young people in their democratic processes could be a rewarding and positive experience for young people and councils alike.
"More and more each time something significant happens - a change in policy or a new decision to make - people are straight away thinking 'how do we involve young people in this?' " (Council officer)
The research highlighted that young people are both willing and able to share their experiences and views on public services as well as on a broad range of other issues. Empowering young people and giving them a voice was regarded by more than eight out of ten local authorities surveyed as an important reason for involving young people.
"We hope to excite them to make a difference to their town. I don't think young people realise that they have the power to change things and make a difference." (Youth councillor, Chesham Youth Council)
Furthermore many respondents valued the opportunity it gave young people to develop skills that can be harnessed in everyday life situations. Young people themselves recognised how this could assist them in the future, for example by equipping them with a range of skills attractive to employers.
Young people who had taken part in involvement initiatives confirmed that public involvement can be an empowering experience, especially for traditionally excluded young people, and can promote feelings of inclusiveness in society. One practitioner gave an example of how young people were involved in designing a logo for a local authority project. This was rejected by the PR department of the authority but the young people refused to back down and succeeded in overturning the council's preferred option. As the practitioner commented: "By equipping young people with skills they will have the confidence to go to the council and argue their case."
The case study research also revealed genuine concern among officers and members that young people lacked an understanding of local government and how it is relevant to their lives. In addition there was widespread anxiety about the low levels of voting among young people at local elections. Some officers involved in the research suggested that involvement activities can generate interest in democratic processes. One officer said: "I know if I succeed if - at the next general election - the youth vote goes up in Kent." Another officer from Buckinghamshire commented: "Bucks may in the next 10-20 years have a lot of young councillors because they have already tasted how to influence and take decisions." While rigorous research is needed on the impact of involvement initiatives on voting or increasing the number of people standing for political office, evidence suggests that deliberative forms of public involvement can begin the process of reconnecting people to political processes.
Providing meaningful opportunities for young people to be involved in shaping local government services and policies will take time, resources and commitment. Involving young people may mean taking risks and making mistakes is part of the process of getting it right. However, those that have taken the leap to involve young people in their democratic processes in committed and active ways report it to be a rewarding and positive experience for both young people and local authorities.
The research involved four key stages: