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Centre for Youth Impact Gathering 2016: Learning together to ask the right questions

On 6 July, almost 100 practitioners, managers and policy makers gathered at the Coin Street Centre in Waterloo, London to catch up on progress and explore priorities for understanding impact in work with young people.  Participants represented a range of perspectives and experience with evidence and impact practice, from the sceptical to the curious to the confident.

We were aiming for a conference with a difference: replacing panels of experts lecturing attendees on ‘how to do it’ or even ‘do it like me!’ with a safe space where challenge, reflection, the development of new ideas and collaboration across the youth sector could flourish.

Included on the packed agenda was an exploration of the possibilities, benefits and challenges of emerging methodologies such as Collective Impact, Most Significant Change and shared measurement. We explored the potential for peer networks as the mechanism for developing thinking and practice. 

And, key to the event’s tone, we acknowledged the tensions inherent in trying to measure and understand impact in work with young people. We set out to use these tensions to create a dialogue that would benefit not only everyone in attendance but, most importantly, the young people with whom they work.

Our mission is to ensure that all impact measurement practice in work with young people is meaningful and supports both individual and organisational learning, with the potential for this learning to be transformative.

Therefore, we design our events so that their content supports all of us present to focus on asking the right question, and on developing our own responses.

The Centre for Youth Impact core team wanted participants to come away feeling inspired, having learnt from peers who are grappling with the same issues, perhaps having had their thinking challenged and, certainly, taking away new perspectives and tools to put into practice.

Of course, the event is only a part of this and so we’ve since been working through the feedback from facilitators and participants to understand their experiences.

Feedback was generally very positive.  It was a busy and energetic day, in which people felt able to immerse themselves in a range of perspectives and approaches to impact measurement across the youth sector. 

Participants were grateful for a “thought provoking”, “inspiring and re-energising” atmosphere and perhaps, more importantly, given the uncomfortable place that impact measurement can sometimes occupy in the youth sector, one that felt “really friendly and positive”, and allowed participants to feel “part of a community”.

Many of the comments have been very encouraging, in terms of what we hoped the event would generate: a collective attempt to define and ask the right questions in the best possible way, to get the answers needed by young people and those offering the provision that they access.

One participant wanted support with “evaluating evaluators”: this is exactly the kind of thinking that we want to promote; we want to support practitioners to make their own decisions about how they go about understanding their impact, as well as developing confidence about the partners they bring on board to help them do so. 

Similarly, another commented that they would, in future, “ask young people relevant questions that will help us develop the service to improve and become more relevant”, and another that the event provided “space for questioning”, and the tools to “define my own questions”.

“It is good to see a widening out of what evidence and impact means,” was a key comment. Many of the tensions we experience surrounding impact measurement, when discussed openly, seem to stem from concerns with regards to how evidence and impact are defined, and how this sits alongside practice, values and ethics within youth organisations.

As a consequence, we aimed to balance open, theoretical discussion with focused, technical input. We want to move the conversation about impact measurement on and we want to share practical tools to make the product of this conversation a reality in day to day practice, whether this be in face to face provision, funding, commissioning or research.

We prioritised giving all participants the opportunity to contribute but we tried not to lose the importance of balancing this with focused inputs and practical ‘what now?’ discussion. 

Learning together to ask the right questions, of course, means that this has to be a conversation from which the Centre also learns and benefits and participants’ feedback from the event has certainly been an important step in this direction.

We want to push practitioners to develop their own responses but it has been underlined in feedback that it is important to bring in relevant, helpful input from experts where this exists. 

We learnt via our feedback how tightly discussion might need to be managed to keep it productive, and avoid grandstanding. In the words of one delegate, “just discussion without sharing of experience or best practice is not as useful”. For us, this feedback suggests not that we need less discussion but that this needs to be carefully focused and skilfully facilitated to allow all an equal opportunity for input and to take the conversation where it needs to go. 

We will take that on board by building coaching and facilitation training into the heart of the Centre’s training offer for its networks and encouraging speakers and facilitators at our events to draw on this skillset.

We’ve also learnt about future priorities for our events and our work more widely: a strong theme in requests for further support was for a network to provide resources, support, information, tools and best practice, as well as the opportunity to ask for help or support.

Impact measurement has proved a contentious and challenging issue in many areas, and at different times, for the youth sector.

With the common goal of improving provision and life chances for young people, however, this continuing conversation is one that matters to us all.

At the Centre for Youth Impact, we are continually learning too, searching out how we can use our events and our networks to give people the appetite, confidence, knowledge and insight to take this conversation on for themselves and put the questions – and answers – into practice in a way that is meaningful for them and for the young people they work with and for.