For young people, collaboration is worth the risk

henrykippinRosieDelivering public services is a risky business, full of what Donald Rumsfeld famously – and rather presciently – called ‘unknown unknowns’.  As the nature of social risk has changed, so have our means of addressing them.  Yet they have not changed fast enough.  Young people risk falling through the gaps of a fragmented and cash-strapped welfare system without new ways of working across traditional divides to support citizens in meaningful ways.

Seventy years ago, William Beveridge designed a welfare state that would slay the five ‘giant’ evils of squalor, want, ignorance, idleness and disease.  His blueprint has largely – and impressively – endured. Yet he could not have forseen the ways in which our political economy has evolved, in some ways fundamentally changing the relationship between public services, business and civil society.  Young people feel these changes acutely.  Unemployment figures remain stubbornly high, and, worryingly, one recent survey from the Princes Trust found that 40% of young people have ‘faced symptoms of mental illness, including self-loathing and panic attacks’ as a result.

It is the stuff of axiom to say that we need innovation, creativity and new ways of working together against social goals.  Without it, we face what the JRF’s Julia Unwin has called a ‘decade of destitution’ for those already at the sharp end of society. But what would that mean?

Kyle (name changed) is in his early 20s and unemployed. Last year he was released from prison after serving a lengthy sentence for a serious crime. He is now looking for work. Kyle’s situation is an example of how public services currently are still not co-ordinated to deal with social risk of this nature: employers are unwilling to look past his criminal record, despite the fact that his sentence was shortened for good behaviour.

He has tried to enrol in college, but his basic skills are so low that he found the whole process impossible. A brief and formulaic engagement with the job centre led to some work programme leads, but nothing came of these. Wherever Kyle looks, there appears to be another barrier. His options gradually narrow, to worklessness, crime or the informal economy, with all of the consequences for him – in terms of his health, housing, wellbeing, finances and long-term prospects – as well as the community.

While lots of stakeholders have an interest, it is no one’s specific responsibility to work with Kyle, to help him navigate the system, learn skills and gain confidence, build networks and the resilience to bounce back after knockbacks.

In November 2013, Kyle was referred by the local job centre to Build-it, a programme co-ordinated by London Youth, in which young people learn construction skills from older mentors, while renovating local authority housing and other community buildings. They are supported by a youth worker who helps them prepare themselves for entering or re-entering the world of work or college, and helped to find employment with the contractors managing local regeneration projects. Build-it has to date worked with over 400 young people, finding positive outcomes, including sustained jobs, for about a third of them so far. Kyle has progressed into a short-term, paid mentoring role within the programme.

Build-it is one small – but growing – example.  But it proves the concept of better, more focused collaboration around the needs of citizens through important transitions in their lives.  It also portents a different approach to risk, helping the job centre, the local authority, employers, colleges and the wider community manage the risks of both action and inaction against the challenges people like Kyle face.  It costs money: largely financed, for now, by philanthropic funding.  It will stand or fall in future by the extent to which it can make the case that shared outcomes and shared risk is worth the pain of public agencies working together in sometimes uncomfortable ways.  For the sake of people like Kyle, we need to argue that it is.

  • Rosie Ferguson is chief executive of London Youth, and Henry Kippin is director of Collaborate CIC


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