Measurement and social value

My experience of working with and talking to many in the sector is that reactions to the idea of measurement of the value of youth work are mainly hostile. There are many entirely understandable reasons for this, including historical factors such as measurement being imposed from above, the perception that measurement taking too long to complete and detracting from running sessions with young people and, for some, the feeling that ‘good youth work works’ but that it is impossible to measure. In this piece, I would like to challenge some of those assumptions and outline why measurement is vital for the long term future of the sector.

Before we go any further, a bit of theory I’m afraid…
In many cases, I think that where measurement has been adopted, it has often been focused on the wrong area. Particularly due to fulfilling requirements of funders or other external partners, the main area of measurement has been outputs – simply counting the number of young people involved with programmes or total attendance at sessions. More powerful things to measure are outcomes and impact. An outcome is broadly the consequences of, for example, young people taking part in sessions, and could include improved relationships with family, educational attainment or better health. The term impact describes the total of the outcomes of an organisation’s activities, sometimes simply a total of the different outcomes or, more technically, how much of these outcomes are specifically a result of a particular organisation’s activities.

An example will probably help to bring this to life:

  • A youth club provides six weeks of sports sessions for a group of young people, looking to provide positive activities to divert them from anti-social behaviour. The total number of sessions delivered, the total attendance and the number of unique young people reached are all outputs
  • As a result, young people improved their fitness, had better family relationships and spent less time hanging around in large groups on their estate. These are all outcomes, experienced by different people – the young people themselves, their family and their wider community
  • The youth club delivering this project has had a positive impact though the activities, though accepting that there may also have been other factors at play in terms of the observed outcomes

Why outcomes and impact are important
Hopefully, we can agree that measuring outcomes and impact are more useful to us than simply attendance at sessions, and there are two major reasons for this.
Firstly, from an internal perspective, having a positive difference on young people and those around them is the key that most people work in the youth work sector. Being able to see the impact of this work is, therefore, hopefully a vindication of the time and effort spent delivering activities or working with young people. When I say ‘see the impact’, however, I am talking about more than anecdotal evidence or case studies – the value of youth work (or any intervention) is much more effectively demonstrated through being able to provide robust, quantifiable evidence of changes as well as the personal stories to bring these to life.
On a linked note, there is real value in being able to keep track of the outcomes of different programmes or interventions, in order to identify which ones worked most effectively and/or whether there are ways in which programmes could be changed to have more of a difference to young people. Ultimately (I hope!), we all want to deliver better services and support to young people to allow them to move forward in their lives – I could have said better outcomes – so anything which enables us to identify how to do this should be welcomed.
Secondly, being able to provide evidence of positive outcomes of particular youth work projects really helps in terms of external funding and justification for the value of an organisation. More and more funding is based on being able to evidence impact rather than simply delivering a certain number of sessions (back to outputs).
I think that, in many cases, organisations get these two areas back to front – measurement is put in place simply to meet the requirements of specific funding requirements, rather than because there is real belief in its importance. This is, arguably, a reason for a large part of the negative feeling towards impact measurement. Seeing measurement as something which has the potential both t allow us to improve the support we give to young people and put us in a better position to work with funders is, hopefully, a better place to be.

But youth work is too hard to measure
Again, this is a common refrain from the sector, but one which can continue. In part, this is simply because, if we are unable to provide evidence for the positive outcomes and impact of youth work then the sector will struggle to survive. Secondly, there are an increasing number of ways in which the positive impact of youth work can be captured and described.
The concept of social return on investment (SROI) has been around for a while and, while it also probably has some negative attitudes associated with it, it does provide an excellent way to demonstrate the ‘social value’ which results from youth work. SROI attempts to put a financial value on the outcomes of particular activities. So, to take the example above, each of the positive outcomes from the sport programme would have a value attached to them (based on what these outcomes were worth to the different people). Whilst this might seem a little tasteless to put a value on improved relationships, the reality is that funders and others probably are anyway (and, everyone is making sub-conscious decisions about value when deciding how to allocate resources, which programme to run etc, so better to have a tool by which these decisions are made). Also, the way in which these outcomes and values are established in an SROI study is very inclusive and involves significant consultation with everyone involved with the project, so at SROI has the advantage of including a wider range of people in decisions about what is valuable than is usually the case.
More recently, the Young Foundation has done some excellent work in their Framework of Outcomes for Young people linking some of the ‘soft’ outcomes of youth work activities – for example, managing feelings, communication and improved relationships – and linking these with long term outcomes such as education and employment.

Why impact measurement and social value are so important now
Briefly, as this is already too long and these areas might be the subject of future blogs!

  1. If we don’t measure and demonstrate impact ourselves, the youth sector will either not retain its position and/or will be forced to measure according to someone else’s criteria
  2. Payment by results is increasingly how some services are being commissioned, so being able to demonstrate outcomes will be increasingly important
  3. The Social Value Act, which came into force earlier this year, requires public bodies to pay more attention to social (and environmental) value, rather than simply cost. Opinions vary about how powerful this will be in transforming the commissioning landscape, but it does at least start to give increased attention to social value.For more readable discussions and analysis see for example http://www.navca.org.uk/social-value-bill, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/feb/05/social-value-act-public-services and http://www.socialenterprise.org.uk/news/new-guide-the-public-services-social-value-act

Luke offers consultancy on impact measurement, SROI and other areas covered in this blog so feel free to get in touch via the links on the profile page above or www.lukemccarthy.com

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About Luke McCarthy

I have a background in sport and particularly its use for personal and social development. I also have extensive knowledge of the use measurement and evaluation approaches and requirements, particularly in relation to demonstrating impact of the work of the youth sector. Outside of work I do a lot of sports including cycling, running and adventure racing. I also struggle to find the time to keep my allotment under control.
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