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Exploring our certainties: proving to improve


In this piece for our November 2016 newsletter, Kenton Hall, Communications Officer for the Centre, offers his reflections on "proving" and "improving" and the questions this discussion have raised within the youth sector.

Imagine for a moment that you know nothing about working with young people.

For those who have dedicated their lives to the study and practice of supporting better outcomes for young people, this may seem an impossible leap to make. It is too much part of the fabric of who they are; they are confronted, day-to-day, by challenges both personal and procedural, by the dichotomy between the complexity of working with individuals and the minutiae of enabling the provision of this work.

And, most importantly, there are actual young people involved, whose lives and futures can be affected positively or negatively as a result of that work.

It is, therefore, easy to understand, in what must often feel like an all-consuming role, the temptation to take sides, to seek allies, to push back against anything that feels as though it conflicts with your core goals or appears to further politicise an already demanding mission.
Within the youth sector, this often flourishes in a sense of conflicting agendas, or in some cases, the feeling that such an agenda has been imposed: to satisfy funders, to conform to a “new” way of doing things or, worst of all, to undermine or discredit instinctive and professional approaches.

The idea that seems to cause the most consternation, in some circles, is that of “proving impact”.

In what can be highly pressurised conditions, does this feel like criticism? A suggestion that the work has not made a difference?
“Prove it!”

To which, it may seem a natural response to ask:   
“Why am I being asked to prove it, when I could just be getting on with doing it?”

Or perhaps:
“Of course I can prove it. I already know the work makes a difference.”
Sometimes, the concern is more about whether anyone is listening.

It is difficult to imagine, at first glance, why anyone who works with young people would be averse to the idea of improving the offer they make to them, the support they provide.
And yet, under challenge, has it become the case that the need to prove, whether willingly or otherwise, has displaced the desire to improve?

And if the key problem is that terminology, and the ideology it reflects, are obscuring shared goals, preventing us from acknowledging and embracing them, then perhaps it would be worthwhile to look at both ideas with fresh eyes.

How would it look if we aligned “proving” and “improving” along an axis that, broadly, equated to the “head” versus the “heart”?  

Let’s take the position that proving is often seen as an exercise, a way of satisfying, or convincing, those on whom practitioners, often grudgingly, rely for funding and resources to do the work about which they are passionate. They put their “heart” into the day-to-day work of relating, of listening, of supporting real life ‘outcomes’: an improved quality of life for the young people with whom they work.

Being asked to prove the benefits of what they’re doing, to measure and demonstrate the impact of their work, may feel like a distraction and an imposition: further time subtracted from a clock that already seems to be running too fast. For others, it is antithetical to their approach; it fundamentally undermines and interferes with their relationships with young people. It is a manifestation of a political climate that emphasises competition and austerity.
But the work is important; the proof should be obvious: what they do matters. They can see the things – feel the things – they are being asked to prove.

Those who work in impact measurement, on the other hand, might feel a similar frustration with the suspicion, in some quarters, of their work. They see, just as clearly, the necessity, with such important work, to be evaluate, to ask systematic questions, to understand what makes a difference and to whom. By being able to ‘prove’ the impact the work is having and, perhaps most importantly, by going through the process of considering what ‘proof’ might mean, then not only can organisations explore, question and reflect upon their inner certainty that a difference is being made but also upon where the work can be improved, even evolved, to better support young people.

And so, it may feel that the head is concerned that the heart will miss something vital.  
What would happen, however, if we reversed these positions? If we considered “proving” as a function of the heart and “improving” as a function of the head?

Can impact truly be measured or outcomes demonstrated without an emotive component? Without the drive, the passion, to do the best for the young people with whom you work, can sufficient honesty being generated to identify flaws, identify approaches that do not achieve what was intended, to thoroughly investigate processes to ensure that they are fit for purpose?
Or could it be that this is the source of the resistance? Is there an element of fear in play when asked to prove something, a fear that admitting a need for improvement and the associated uncertainty would be, in essence, an admission of failure?

Anyone who has ever shared knowledge with someone else, whether in a group setting or one-to-one, knows that one of the subsidiary benefits is that in the act of communicating knowledge, we refresh our own, we sharpen our understanding of our own practice.

So, consider the process of ‘proving’ impact, of measuring and communicating that impact to others, as an act of sharing learning and insight. You may have to demonstrate the impact of your work for what appear to be procedural reasons – to funders, for instance – but is this not an opportunity, a means of helping them to understand what you do and why, and, in turn, reflecting yourself on what you do that ‘works’ and where you can improve?

Conversely, those focused on impact measurement, on processes, tools and methods by which this can be refined, made more reliable, made more robust – must never forget that the result for which they’re working is not better measurement, but better outcomes. The eventual target of improvement is the quality of the young people’s lives.

With that in mind, a different sort of rigour may be applied to the scientific and academic approaches by which tools are developed and processes honed. “Improving” with all its potentially ephemeral qualities becomes an essential factor in the work. “Proving” can no more be a means unto itself within the academic community than it can be for those working with directly with young people.

These are, however, simply thought experiments, designed to make us think about two broad and, seemingly, contradictory ideas from a different angle.

Is there really that marked a divide between the head and he heart, between “proving” and “improving”? Surely, as in life, to achieve all of which both are capable, they must work together in concert?

The head and the heart must be joined.

We prove because it offers the opportunity to improve in ways we may not have otherwise identified. We improve so that the act of proving becomes less of an onerous addition to our work and more an inherent component of it.

Obviously, in practice, it would be short-sighted to imagine that any division in practice is easily bridged. The head and heart are, too often, prone to conflict. But they are part of the same organism. They inform and feed each other. They must admit and understand the limitations of the other, in order for the body to function.

It is much the same with “proving” and “improving”. If we start from the assumption that we are all working towards the same goal albeit, at times, using different methods and following different paths, then the act of proving and the art of improving can serve most effectively in tandem, for the benefit of the young people with whom we work.