A simple story, but a complex strategy

[Summary: A short post of reflections by way of contribution to the Youth Policy Symposium on Participation]

I’ve just been tuning into Howard Williamson’s introductory speech at a Youth Policy Symposium on participation taking place in London today and tomorrow, convened by the Open Society Foundations and the British Council, with help from friends at CYEC. Nicolo from YParticipate summed up Howard’s talk in the following tweet:

“We need a simple story to tell about youth participation, and a complex strategy to implement it”

Which seemed as good a provocation as any to offer some thoughts and connections on that simple story, and complex strategy.

Children’s Human Rights

In the RightSpace project we explored the importance of shifting from a narrative based around ‘exceptionalism’ of children and young people, to a focus on the fundamental rights and personhood of children and young people, and the rights to be involved in decision making that flow from that.

A recognition of the personhood of young people, and a recognition that there are systematic patterns of discrimination against children and young people in society (which Adam Fletcher of Freechild labels ‘adultism‘ highlighting their similarity to other ‘isms’ of racism, sexism, castism, and ageism), cannot be met only by changes to systems and institutions, or by the introduction of policies – but requires – as other isms do – a change of individual and societal attitudes towards those discriminated against.

There are at least two aspects to participation rights:

  • A right to be heard, and to influence what happens to me as an individual – far too often talk of participation jumps straight in with a focus on large-scale collective decision making, ignoring the many domestic and seemingly mundane contexts in which the views of children and young people are not taken into account. From the moment we can communicate we can express preferences about a situation: from decisions about what to eat, to where to live, to what should happen in a family. These preferences may not be perfectly formed (whose are?), and in general in any social decision making there are many people’s preferences to weigh up. In good decision making, negotiation over preferences leads not only to a decision, but to a transformation of the preferences involved as well. The fundamental simple story of participation is that whenever there is a decision affecting children and young people, they should be part of the negotiation around it.
  • A right to participate in collective decision making – which might simply be direct negotiation with more actors, or, more often, involves ‘representatives’ discussing issues on behalf of a wider constituency. In global (or even national and local) decision making the groups involved tend to be far from demographically representative of wider populations, and the procedures by which people are selected to participate in these systems have inherent bias against young people being equally likely to be selected to participate. Sometimes this is because of particular structural properties of youth (having had less years to gain certain key experience), and at other times it is down to discriminatory attitudes (implicit or not) of adultism. However, we also have to recognise that many other groups are systematically excluded from these decision making fora (and even when young people are included, it is often only a particular sub-set of young people to do get included – the bias towards young mens participation over young women’s in some contexts being one example). To promote children and young people’s participation in collective decision making on the basis of rights and democracy, without promoting deeper forms of democracy which seek far wider inclusion than those we conventionally operate with is inconsistent.

This suggests that whilst one simple story might be tricky, there are two simple, but radical, narratives we can draw upon in advocacy for youth participation:

  1. Children and young people, are people;

  2. We need deep democracy open to all to participate as equal parties in negotiation;

But what about a pragmatic story?

The story above, about what youth participation is and should be, is liable to charges of idealism. However, unless advocacy for children and young people’s participation is based upon deep principles, we will continue to have many stories: many different pragmatic reasons for youth involvement, and many different ‘strategies’ for promoting participation that flow from them. As I wrote in 2008, having different pragmatic reasons for young involvement is ok, providing you match your engagement approach to the goal. But a foundation in common principles is useful to identify when an youth participation project is an attempt to move towards a realisation of principles of young people’s rights, and principles of deeper democracy, or when projects are uncritically replicating existing power structures and co-opting young people into undemocratic decision making.


If finding a simple story is challenging, finding strategies for promoting and evaluating participation is also.

However, rather than further dissertation on strategy, I’ll simple point to two tools I’ve found immensely helpful in strategic approaches to participation:

  1. Hear by Right, co-written by Practical Participation co-director Bill Badham, Hear by Right uses an organisational change framework which puts shared-values right at the centre, and provides a simple model for addressing a wide-range of organisational issues that support participation – from addressing participation in job descriptions, to involving young people in governance.

    I ran the shared learning website for Hear by Right for a number of years (now sadly discontinued by The National Youth Agency) as a space for people to share their journeys in promoting participation within their organisations.

    Perhaps the one strategic weakness of a Hear by Right approach in the way it was most commonly implemented was that a focus on organisational change could allow organisations to see participation as something done by a particular part of the organisation, rather than working more explicitly to challenge the adultist attitudes of staff and stakeholders right across the organisation.

  2. The Matrix of Participation (a copy is in this post) which sets out a grid of participation methods, and uses the (contested) ladder of participation to highlight that participation is not a one-dimensional thing in organisations or communities. Just having formal structures for participation is not enough, they need to be linked to other forms of participative structure – allowing a range of ways for children and young people to be involved in decision making.


The question of “What changes?” has already come up in the Youth Policy Symposium (as I watch on the webcast). A big elements of later versions of the Hear by Right tool was a focus on collecting stories of change as a means of ensuring participation was not just tokenistic, but led to visible and measurable change. However, if participation is based on the principles I’ve suggested above, of personhood and democracy, the fundamental question is not necessarily “what has changed?”, but is “who was empowered in the negotiations?”.

Youth participation often seeks after fast change: after all – the time in which one can be ‘officially’ part of youth participation structures is a limited one – and we all want to see change as a result of our actions. But sometimes all democratic decision making has to face that decision making in diverse groups is complex, time-consuming and difficult.

As I write I realise the role of change in participation is something I need to give more thought to, but at least we can separate out two key questions:

  • What has changed on the substantive issues children and young people were bringing to the table?
  • What has changed in making the decision making environment more inclusive, and more deeply democratic?

Too often we mix up those two questions.

A changing world

This post has already become longer than I’d planned, and raised various issues I need to go and explore more. But I want to also mention the importance of recognising the global, digitally connected nature of the world we are living in when developing any strategies for promoting participation.

Although early days of utopian thinking about the democratising potential of the Internet are passed, it still has phenomenal potential (and existing impact) as a tool for creating new forms of participation, models of negotiation, and spaces where ageism and discrimination can be challenged.

I hope discussions at today’s Youth Policy Symposium will help develop further visions for participation in the 21st century and will explore not only formal structures, but also more fluid ways of children and young people participating in public debate and decision making.


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