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Economic Value(s)


This blog is co-authored by Bethia McNeil, our Chief Executive, and Ed Anderton, our Acting Director of Practice Development. In it, they share some reflections about the use of cost-benefit analysis in the youth sector, with reference to programmes such as the National Citizen Service, and the Youth Investment Fund.

"One of the things we value very highly here at the Centre for Youth Impact is a shared commitment to be curious and questioning, comfortable with uncertainty and open to challenge. We were recently provided with an opportunity to put this into practice, when we received the following response from Tania de St Croix at King’s College London, to a tweet announcing the publication of the second insight paper from the learning partnership for the Youth Investment Fund:
“Sad that economic policy creates a need for such arguments. The problem with assigning a monetary value to youth work is not just that it's practically difficult; it's also morally problematic.”
The paper, written by our colleagues and partners at NPC, sets out in detail the practical challenges involved in, and recent history of, translating the value of working with young people into financial “return on investment” terms. One of the key reference points in the paper is the approach to this taken by the National Citizen Service. The tweet above links to an academic paper that critiques that approach, raising concerns about the implications for the development and evaluation of youth policy and practice as a whole (the paper is available here).
Reading this paper, a particular concern that resonated was the potential for young people in the greatest need of support to be the least ‘convenient’ in terms of generating a cost-beneficial ‘output’ for a programme or service. Young people with chaotic lives, unlikely to attend regular sessions or complete surveys, will be more costly and less ‘predictable’ to support towards positive outcomes, and thus a higher risk in terms of achieving an ‘impact return’ on investment.  
This runs directly counter to the intent expressed by the current Government which, as quoted in a recent report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs: “recognises the transformational impact that youth services and trained youth workers can have, especially for young people facing multiple barriers or disadvantage”
The extract highlights a second critical point, beyond the emphasis on young people most marginalised and disconnected from society: the recognition that youth services can (though may not always) have a transformational impact. Youth services do this through consistent, patient and long-term relationships with young people.
“Value for money” estimates are a blunt tool that flatten out individual experience, and rely on generalisation. Any attempt to place a value on transformation is likely to be open to question, if not ridicule. We should pay particular attention to tools and approaches that do not align well with the nature of practice, and worse, may (unintentionally) be leading us to further disadvantage the most vulnerable.
Nonetheless, calculations of social value have become a dominant means of evaluating and shaping social programmes: and so it is crucial that they are constructively challenged.  In their article, Tania and her colleagues remind us that even exploring the potential for financialisation of youth provision is not a neutral process. It requires us to adopt a position about which values count, and encourages us towards an individualised, transactional model for measuring and “paying for” change. This is particularly unhelpful in advancing our understanding of the role of youth provision within communities – something we remind ourselves of regularly within the Youth Investment Fund.
This issue can be located within a wider debate about the way in which we quantify value across our economy as a whole. The New Zealand Government’s publication of a ‘Wellbeing Budget’ provides an example of innovative practice, seeking to move us beyond GDP as the dominant ‘score’ by which we judge progress. Yet it also raises further questions: If a wellbeing analysis results in young people’s mental health becoming a high priority, what would constitute an appropriate policy response through an economic value lens?
As NEF’s Annie Quick points out in this recent episode of the ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ podcast, as well as increasing direct investment in mental health services, we need to consider underlying structural factors.  It is simpler and cleaner to constrain our scrutiny to the effectiveness or ‘value’ of individual interventions, but in doing so we restrict our ambition for broader transformation. This is central to the debates about the economic value of youth services, which have always held community, democracy, equity and political awareness at their heart. As Ronald Purser writes, in a critique of the mindfulness movement in particular, “anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary – it just helps people cope"