The impact of children and young people's participation on policy making

A report commissioned by the Scottish Government to explore the impact children and young people’s participation has had on policy-making in Scotland.

5. Lessons from the case studies for policy making

What lessons can organisations share on what is working well and what could be improved in involving children and young people in national and local decision making?

A key lesson that organisations can take from this research is that participation work must be exactly that, participative and not just tokenistic. Arnstein's Ladder of Participation suggests that participation is more meaningful when more power and control over decision-making is devolved to citizens and the findings from these case studies support this theory. Therefore organisations and policy makers should look to utilise engagement that gives children and young people the opportunity to plan, shape, lead, review and change policy wherever possible. Where this approach is taken, children and young people appear far more likely to be able to influence policy making.

Of the six case studies in our research, YEA appeared to have had the most success in involving children and young people at every stage of the process and their work led to clear, tangible policy developments. Similar results were seen in the work of the Renfrewshire Champions' Board, where the young people were setting the agenda.

Where children and young people cannot set the agenda and the issues, it is important that a blank slate is provided to allow them to have a meaningful impact on the policy. The Police Powers to Stop and Search project identified that where the government provided a genuinely open consultation, children and young people were able to have more of an influence over the outcome of the policy. While this process may not necessarily mean that their views alone will always inform the outcome of the policy, it does mean that they have the opportunity to shape it.

It is also vitally important to meet with children and young people in an environment where they feel comfortable and safe. This can mitigate other issues with participation work and allow children and young people to contribute their views in less than ideal conditions. However, this must not be taken as an excuse to skip steps, instead this should be seen as a vital part of the overall process that contributes to high quality participation. The positive impact of this was seen in the UNCRC reporting cycle where the clear choice by practitioners to support this allowed children and young people to engage meaningfully with the UN Rapporteur.

There also needs to be appropriate time built into policy making to ensure that children and young people's engagement and participation is an embedded part of the policy making process. Recruiting and preparing young people to engage on policy issues, particularly where they are sensitive, needs support and investment over time. Good planning by organisations and policy makers in advance of engagement can make it far easier to build preparation work into a project.

The Equally Safe project raised this exact issue. There were no younger children with lived experience able to participate due to the sensitivity of the issue, whilst the young people who were able to engage were able to do so due to their prior engagement with policy-making processes. Time and funding set aside for preparation work could clearly have mitigated some of these issues and indeed the new participation project that has been funded should allow such preparation work to be built in and support more meaningful representative participation going forward.

Adequate resourcing for engagement is absolutely vital to meaningful engagement, and was highlighted as a challenge in nearly all the case studies. Where dedicated resource was given on an on-going basis, such as with Young Edinburgh Action and Renfrewshire Champions' Board the impact and value is clearly evident. This includes recognition and recompense for the staff time needed to recruit and support children and young people's engagement. Too often this fell to third sector organisations to shoulder these costs, or make up the shortfall. Policy makers wishing to engage with children and young people need to ensure that adequate resource is available in the budget.

Organisations should also focus on consistent long-term engagement. The types of engagement in the case studies varied considerably from one-off events to ongoing engagement over considerable lengths of time with the evidence showing that more successful projects tended to be those with longer term engagement with children and young people. Policy makers therefore need to think more creatively than one-off consultation events.

However, we appreciate that it may not always be possible to start with a blank sheet, and that certain single issue discussions will arise. Organisations and policy makers therefore need to be clear on what decisions and areas are open to direction and change. To support children and young people to be involved in such one off events or discussions, policy makers and organisations need to build adequate flexibility into their approaches to allow for young people to control other aspects of the engagement. They also need to consider the appropriate support to make it accessible for all to be involved, particularly younger children and those with additional support needs.

Such flexibility was built into the UNCRC youth-led visits, the facilitation by young people as part of Equally Safe and the creative methods used in both the SNAP innovation project and Children's Parliament's consultation work on Stop and Search. This flexibility provided opportunities to support children and young people to have more control, whether through shaping the programme and the methods, get involved in facilitation or reporting and sharing findings creatively. This supported children and young people to have control over various other aspects of the work and led to successful points that may otherwise have been missed.

The case studies all identify that policy makers also need to be clear about how the views of children and young people have informed changes in policy, and be willing to share this. Feedback on the process and outcome of engagement work is essential. This must be undertaken on a timely basis at appropriate intervals, and using engaging and age appropriate approaches. Policy makers should recognise their responsibilities to ensure feedback is given, so that young people know what impact their input has had, and where change has happened or if their input has not affected any change. If particular time delays or blocks have arisen, it is also important that young people know that and the reasons behind them.

With examples such as Stop and Search it is quite clear where children and young people have made a difference, but it helps that this was a very specific issue being consulted on. Broader topics, such as child rights may be more difficult to measure impact against, as they involve lots of different policy areas. However, this should not be seen as reason for inaction and all projects must ensure that feedback is forthcoming on the progress of their engagement work.

All case studies highlighted the importance of skilled professionals in supporting the delivery of successful participation and engagement work. The UNCRC reporting case showed that skilled professionals can ensure successful participation work even under time or resource pressures.

The case of Renfrewshire Champions' Board showed that relationships between policy makers and skilled engagement professionals can develop over time and highlights the value of partnership working.

Similar partnerships should be sought by organisations who want to engage with children and young people but do not have staff with the skills or confidence to facilitate this. The case studies give examples of several organisations in Scotland with the skills and expertise to support engagement including WhoCares? Scotland, Scottish Youth Parliament, YMCA, CYPCS, Children's Parliament, Children in Scotland, and many others.

Some case studies in this report purposefully focused on the needs and views of specific groups, such as care-experienced young people or those with experience of domestic violence. Others were looking to engage with a broader range of children and young people. Some described difficulties in reaching specific populations, such as young men or younger children, and this is not uncommon. For example, we know from our other work that less engagement work takes place with younger children and those with additional support needs for various reasons: because it is often seen as 'specialist'; because methods have not been adapted to support their engagement; or because the networks and connections are not there to enable recruitment.

Almost all of the case studies identified that policy makers need to improve on linking policies and procedures to participation and engagement work, knowledge of this was however far stronger in the organisations delivering the work. Understanding of child rights and the policies and procedures to support participation are a key tenant of the Council of Europe measuring tool, however, policy makers often felt that knowledge of training or policies was for other departments. Staff who are looking to work with children and young people directly or indirectly need to be far clearer about policies and processes like child protection, child rights, consent, confidentiality and the responsibility to provide accessible complaints procedures to support their practice and also to ensure the wellbeing of the children and young people involved.

Organisations and policy makers also need to ensure that expectations and timescales take account of the fact that engaging with policy making is only one aspect of children and young people's lives. As with professionals, young people find themselves pulled in different directions from various aspects of their lives including school, family, and personal interests. Timescales and expectations must reflect this. Children and young people have the right to drop out of engagement work and lose interest. Where policy making will be slow, such as in the case of Police Powers to Stop and Search, children and young people should be informed of this at the start.


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