Everyone seems to agree that engaging with young people is critical to a brighter future. The United Nations recognises young people as major resources for development and as key agents for social change. It argues giving younger generations the tools to fully participate in conversations and decisions about matters that affect them is critical to a flourishing society.
Youth engagement also brings economic benefits. Borrowing principles from the private insurance industry, social investment models around the world have aimed to reduce the liability in welfare systems through better targeting government investment. Social investment models in the United Kingdom and New Zealand have found improved outcomes among young people reduce overall system liability.
Across governments and the not-for-profit sector, countless youth engagement frameworks, strategies and plans articulate the value of youth engagement and try to mobilise action to encourage it.
Governments, not-for-profit and advocacy groups increasingly recognise the importance of the youth voice in making decisions, including in Indigenous communities. But despite the attention, youth engagement has proved difficult to pin down. It can be difficult to define youth engagement, and even trickier to identify how governments, communities and individuals can build and inspire it without doing more harm than good.
One reason youth engagement can be difficult to articulate is because it actually refers to two distinct but related concepts:
Speaking with youth is critical to understanding what works for them, what will not, where the gaps are and how the system could be re-designed to better meet their needs. Young people know their own histories, interests and motivations, so ensuring they have a say in how the services affecting them operate is critical to addressing their needs.
In other words, young people are the experts when it comes to their own lives, so their involvement in system and service design discussions is vital.
At Nous Group, our experience empowering young people in service design has offered some insight into what works best.
For example, in Broome recently we brought together national and state government organisations with community organisations and young people to discuss recommendations made by two inquiries into youth suicide.
Involving young people in these discussions from the outset was vital. We spent time with them before the workshop, working together on the agenda, activities, ground rules and content they wanted to present. The workshop was then co-facilitated by Nous and two local youth leaders, who spoke from their direct experience about their goals and what needed to happen.
Facilitating conversations with young people about their service experiences can be a simple exercise. But talking to young people who already participate – who go to school, access local services and get involved in community activity – can only paint part of the picture.
Meaningful engagement with disengaged young people is also critical. But deep conversations with disengaged young people is more challenging.
Finding disengaged young people to talk to can be difficult. Disengagement is often characterised by a lack of contact with formal services like school, meaning these young people can be hard to track down.
The reasons for youth disengagement – social and family issues, exposure to violence, alcohol, drugs and abuse – also contribute to a young person’s lack of trust for, and willingness to speak to, authorities seeking them out. This is especially true in Aboriginal communities, where the historical trauma of colonisation understandably compounds feelings of distrust and disempowerment.
Because of these challenges, it can be easy to rely on networks of young people who are already engaged. They are easier to locate and generally pleased to speak about their experiences. But these consultations offer incomplete insights into where the system is failing, and what can be done to fix this, as shown in the figure below.
Consulting disengaged young people demands a new approach. To get these young people to want to engage, they must value the conversation; the discussion must be meaningful for, or at least of interest to, that young person. This demands thinking differently about engagement.
For example, Nous recently worked with people in the Fitzroy Valley, in the Kimberley, to help develop a new Youth Engagement Strategy for at-risk young people. As part of this work, we surveyed over 100 young people from remote communities using virtual reality headsets, which we had pre-loaded with a virtual environment containing 30 survey questions.
Inside the headsets, participants would walk to voting stations, answering each question in the survey by throwing a ball into a labelled basket. This way we collected valuable information about the attitudes, values and service preferences of young people throughout the Valley. The engaging nature of the headsets helped us get through to young people who would not otherwise sit through a survey, including disengaged cohorts in the juvenile justice system.
In the Fitzroy Valley, we recognised the role of knowledge transfer among peers and families, using community navigators to help us collect ideas from young people. These navigators – who had deep connections in community – spoke with their networks on our behalf, and reached out to people who we could not otherwise access, gathering vital input from hard-to-reach young people for the strategy.
Moving past youth disengagement requires ongoing integration of the youth perspective. We must look to new engagement models, beyond one-off conversations, that give young people genuine power of determination over the services and systems that affect them. Examples of mechanisms to engage young people include:
This means thinking about what genuine co-design with young people looks like. It means looking at decision-making models that take some of the power away from authorities and give it back to young people. And it means listening to young people when they contest the status quo through means like the Imagine Declaration, written by students at this year’s Garma Festival to challenge the prime minister to involve young people, especially Aboriginal young people, in policy-making.
More devolved governance models, which shift of control away from governments and towards local communities, will be a key enabler of change. In Western Australia, opportunities exist with the regional District Leadership Groups, established to encourage decision-making at a regional level, based on local priority issues.
The benefits of youth engagement are clear for both current and future generations. Whether we, as a society, take full advantage of current opportunities remains to be seen.
Get in touch to discuss how we can help your organisation engage more effectively with young people.
This article was co-authored by Emma White during her time as a Principal at Nous Group.
Published on 30 October 2019.