Youth participation has come a long way – but we need to go even further to ensure young people are listened to in our Covid-19 recovery

Barry Williams reflects on the progress the youth sector has made during his career, and what he has learned from his first few months as Interim CEO at Youth Access.

In my nearly 20 years of working and volunteering in the voluntary sector, I can safely say that I’ve never seen anything like the last six months. With the arrival of Covid-19 disrupting everything we thought of as normal, organisations across the country have had to fundamentally rethink the way they deliver services and quickly adapt to an ever-changing and urgent situation.

It was certainly a challenging time to take over the reins as Interim CEO at Youth Access – an organisation that plays such a crucial role in leading and shaping the youth advice and counselling sector. But it has also been an inspiring time to be part of an organisation that champions young people’s rights and ensures young people’s voices are at the heart of the way services are envisaged and produced – principles which, as we plan for our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, have never been more important.

Over the course of my career in the youth sector, the growing recognition of the importance of user involvement in service design and delivery has been by far the greatest stride forward I’ve seen. My formative years in the sector saw the publication of Youth Matters and Aiming High for Young People. These documents set out the aspiration of policy-makers and service providers to involve young people in decision-making and service production. Although through the lens of 2020 the ambitions feel limited, they laid the foundations that have since been built upon to enable more meaningful participation for young people.

The progress that we’ve made has been particularly clear in recent years. The organisations I’ve worked with have embedded meaningful participation as a cyclical, ongoing process weaved through services and programmes, from design to evaluation. We have achieved greater impact and increased satisfaction for service users through a human rights-based, person-centred approach with a focus on ease of access. I’m continuously learning from young people and my colleagues on how we can do this more effectively, and this approach has been a welcome evolution from my early years in the sector.

Since joining Youth Access, I have been absorbing how to embed a rights-based approach to service design and delivery from our exceptionally committed and talented staff team. The recently-published evaluation of the Make Our Rights Reality (MORR) programme is a great example of the value of our network’s approach to promoting and facilitating young people’s right to participate in decisions and services which affect them.

The evaluation summarised the value of investing time, resources, training and most of all a commitment to coproduction. It found that the positive benefits were two-fold. Young people who participated increased their knowledge, advocacy skills and agency and the participating organisations benefited from better-informed delivery.

This was no surprise to us - at Youth Access we passionately believe that young people with lived experience should be trusted as experts in decisions made about their care and what the wider mental health system looks like. That means keeping up the progress that the sector has made over recent decades to expand opportunities for young people to have their say and play an ever-larger role in the way services are run.

With plans in development to support young people whose mental health has been so heavily impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s vital that we continue to make the case for this bold approach to youth participation and involvement. The UK’s jump-to-action style, enthusiastically celebrated by those in power, is only sometimes appropriate and effective. To ensure long term, impactful results from services that will support people to recover from the impact of Covid-19, long-term planning is also essential.

Central to this planning should be listening to young people. As well as supporting our partners in the sector in calling for a Mental Health Renewal Plan, we at Youth Access have been hard at work over the last few months outlining our vision for a rights-based recovery to the pandemic, one that is led by the voices of young people and puts equality and non-discrimination at the centre.

Alongside our members we can demonstrate how this can be done effectively and we have the results to prove it. I very much hope policy-makers invest in a planned approach, with a focus on prevention and early intervention. And most importantly, that they take the time to learn from and listen to those people who will need to access these services.

To help improve and embed youth participation and involvement across the youth counselling and advice sector, we have set up a new online community for practitioners to exchange practices and share common challenges related to participation and engagement. Sign up for the community - and other online communities coming soon - here.

Our online communities is exclusive to practitioners at Youth Access member organisations - find out more about Youth Access membership here.