How to engage youth in making policies that work for us all

Young people take a keen interest in key policy areas such as climate change – the main problem is a lack of government engagement with them on such intergenerational issues. AAP/Newzulu/Zoe Reynolds

National Youth Week is an opportunity to celebrate young people and their contribution to society. But the nature – and future – of this contribution has never been more uncertain as reforms for work, welfare, education and health are being explored in light of recent or anticipated reviews, including the Intergenerational Report, the McClure Report for Welfare Reform and the Mental Health Commission Review.

All the while youth unemployment rises. There is no shortage of debate in parliament and the public sphere over what should be done. Yet federal government engagement with young people on policy development has declined to an all-time low.

Key mechanisms for youth involvement in institutional policy processes, including the Australian Youth Forum and the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, have been discontinued or defunded. This is despite international evidence that involving young people in policy development leads to more appropriate and effective policy.

Lack of youth involvement is often attributed to lack of interest. My research indicates the more significant barrier is government capacity to listen to and work with young people’s views.

Governments have experimented with models of participatory governance, but have frequently defaulted to what communications scholar Stephen Coleman calls “managed citizenship”: initiatives that define for young people how they engage with government and on which issues. This approach typically views young people as “apprentice citizens” and emphasises “having a voice”.

Consequently, while the Australian Youth Forum (AYF) held promise that it would foster both the mass involvement of young Australians and vertical links with policy makers, engagement by either group has been sparse. Despite the efforts of young people in the AYF steering committees, it is hard to see evidence of impact beyond that select group of participants.

Developing a ‘hybrid’ approach

Powered in many respects by digital media practices, young people are increasingly forming strong views and mobilising on local and global issues. Examples include safety from violence, climate change, poverty alleviation and mental health.

Two of Australia’s biggest membership-based organisations are youth-led. The Australian Youth Climate Coalition and Oaktree Foundation have between 80,000 and 150,000 members each. Their work in community education, advocacy, policy and fundraising should alert Australian governments to a young generation that has much to say – and do.

The membership of the Oaktree Foundation, a youth movement to end poverty, dwarfs those of political parties.

Adult-run organisations such as, Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre and Foundation for Young Australians work in partnership with thousands of young people. This work has produced innovative policy, services and social enterprises in mental health, education and sustainable futures. And for more than half a century youth workers, youth-serving organisations and youth peak bodies have supported young people – especially those who are marginalised – to participate in their communities, express their views on issues that matter to them and connect them to government.

Despite pockets of engagement on a handful of issues, a holistic and national level approach is required. This is particularly necessary to address broader policy areas such as the economy, in ways that will have ongoing benefits for young people.

Innovation builds intergenerational partnerships

My research has documented many case studies in Australia and the UK where organisation and funding models support young people, adults, youth services and government to collaborate in policy development.

For instance, in the UK, the British Youth Council (BYC) is a youth-adult partnership with a mixed funding model. The BYC receives significant government investment but is independently directed and managed with young people.

The BYC champions community campaigning and support for organisations, services, councils and central government to adopt a participatory approach to working with young people. The central government funds the BYC to coordinate formal participation mechanisms. These include networks of elected youth councils and young mayors, the UK Youth Parliament (which in 2013 mobilised nearly 500,000 youth votes) and committees of young policy advisers to parliamentarians and international governance forums.

Members of the UK Youth Parliament take their seats for a debate in the House of Commons. Flickr/UK Parliament, CC BY-NC-ND

The Australian examples mentioned above have innovative strategies to power youth participation for improved organisational governance, social enterprise, service provision and advocacy. But their connection to public policy making could be strengthened.

Moving forwards, not backwards

These examples show that intergenerational partnerships in policy making are possible and lead to better outcomes. Based on previous research, successful models for youth engagement have six key ingredients:

  1. youth involvement in their design and governance

  2. formal and informal approaches

  3. fostering of community connections and collaboration

  4. clear links to institutions and political elites

  5. ensuring participation is purposeful and connected to outcomes

  6. importantly, that they are sustainably resourced.

Rather than cutting funding, the federal government could advance a new approach.

The expertise and reach of organisations like Australian Youth Affairs Coalition provide a base for developing a new model for engagement. This is needed to inform national policies that work for the community and for young people - now and in the future.

A mixed funding model with government investment in core infrastructure and innovative programs for youth engagement in policy and change-making can leverage both community and NGO expertise and infrastructure. This would connect government policy processes to current youth action and initiatives for a more just, inclusive and productive society.

When it comes to “participation”, young people are being sent a clear message: your place is in school or work – not in politics. Yet, at a time when young people are increasingly mobilised through issues-based and online politics, governments have an opportunity to develop robust policy for the future by engaging with young citizens in the present.