Proven Practice: involving children and young people in decision-making

Over the past decade there has been increased recognition of the important role children and young people can play in shaping social care. Policy has placed their input at the heart of service planning and delivery.

Effective participation is achieved through the recognition that it “reaches beyond specific events to include a whole overarching approach” (Kirby et al 2003). In this article we focus on culture, by which we refer to the ethos of an organisation, which is shared by all staff and service users. A culture of participation is one in which all members of the organisation share and demonstrate a commitment to the involvement of children and young people.


Although there has been recognition that culture is a legitimate area for service development, within organisations there are frequently structural and cultural barriers to the involvement of children and young people in decision making. They include:

● Funding and resourcing: an organisation may not feel money/time spent on involving young people is the best use of resources.

● Decision-making structure: the timings and format of meetings may exclude young people from attendance.

● Lack of understanding about the meaning of participation.

● Resistance to new ways of working: the involvement of young people may make staff feel threatened and they may feel undermined by the changed power dynamic.

● Communication: there may a lack of understanding about how to deal with young people.


To develop a culture of participation there must first be open discussion between managers, practitioners and children and young people in which they define participation and recognise its importance. Establishing a definition should involve agreement on aims, objectives and outcomes along with a shared understanding of the extent to which children will be involved in decisions.

A full definition of participation will identify what is to be changed or achieved, for, when, how and by whom.

When drawing up this definition it can helpful to consider the following areas:

● Relevance: Is the definition relevant to everyone of all ages and stages and levels of working?

● Meaning: What does the definition seek to encapsulate – participation as a theory, proven as a model?

● Dissemination: How will this definition be shared in policy and practice?

Before adults, children and young people can make a considered decision about the need for participation, they need to understand why participation should be integral to the workings of the organisation.

They can do this by gaining understanding of the legislative requirements of participation.

It is important that children, young people and adults all have a good understanding of the decision-making processes in place so they can establish where power lies and the points where it needs to change. Kirby et al (2003) suggest the process of “increasing children and young people’s participation in an organisation is political process about shifting power relationships”.

This is a sensitive process which must take on board the expectations and anxieties of adults as well as establishing a consensus on where the boundaries of young people’s involvement should be. This includes evaluating which decisions and actions can be exposed to change and how and to what extent young people can be involved in the process or parts of it.


A committed manager can ease the process of transferring power to the young people and ensure that resistance is addressed and practitioners are supported and encouraged.

Managers can play a key role in maintaining participation as a priority on the agenda and ensuring ongoing resources.


A participation charter, a written strategy outlining standards for the participation of young people, can play a valuable role in ensuring the success of participation.

The charter should be agreed and signed by each adult, child and young person in the organisation; local partner agencies should when possible also sign. Reviewing the charter should be a process involving all groups.

To reinforce and demonstrate its commitment to participatory practice, an organisation should publicise the ways they involve children and young people. This demonstrates their commitment to staff, to the children and young people who use their services and to potential partner agencies.


● Children and young people can play an important role in shaping social care.

● A culture of participation is one in which all members of the organisation share and demonstrate commitment to the involvement of children and young people.

● Benefits of a culture of participation for young people include new skills, broader social network and an understanding of how organisations work.

● Benefits for the organisation include a service better suited to the needs of children and young people.

● Barriers to a participatory culture include competition for resources, fear of new ways of working and lack of experience and skills.

● To establish a participatory culture children, young people and adults must come up with a definition of participation, agree to its importance and understand their current organisational structure.

● The culture should be enshrined in a charter which is signed by all adults and young people as well as relevant stakeholders and external agencies.

● To be effective management should be committed to the process of participation and the work done to involve young people should be publicised.


Social Care Institute for Excellence, Participation Practice Guide 06: The participation of children and young people in developing care

Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services


Author Kirby P, Lanyon C, Cronin K and Sinclair R

Title Building a culture of participation

Reference Department for Education and Skills, 2003

Abstract The handbook draws on the findings of a research study that explored the experiences of 29 organisations in seeking to listen to young people and take action on what they said. The research points to this being most likely to succeed where organisations had worked to sustain and embed their participation activity.

Author: GUNN Robert

Title The power to shape decisions? An exploration of young people’s power in participation

Reference Health and Social Care in the Community, 16(3), May 2008, pp.253-261

Abstract The participation of children and young people in social care decision-making in England is now widely accepted, supported by statute and enhanced by specific practice guidance. Drawing on data from 24 semi-structured interviews with young people, local politicians, managers and front-line workers in three English social services departments, this paper explores the theoretical basis of young people’s participation in the local policy process. In particular, a typology devised by Levin is used to explain what types of power each stakeholder group can exercise. The paper concludes that the mechanisms used to facilitate participation and the culture of organisations are important factors in the process, and that a clearer understanding of power could be used to help agencies improve their policy-making.

Author DAVIES Bernard; MARKEN Mary

Title Towards a youth strategy: the Sunderland youth review

Reference National Youth Agency, 1998. 91p

Abstract This is a review of services catering for young people in Sunderland. It determines how well services respond to young people’s needs and demands, how effectively different services work together and what gaps exist, and goes on to make extensive recommendations for how delivery can be better co-ordinated and made more effective.

Author FRANKLIN Anita; SLOPER Patricia

Title Supporting the participation of disabled children and young people in decision-making.

Reference Children and Society, 23(1), January 2009, pp3-15

Abstract Increasing children’s and young people’s participation in decisions, about their own care and about service development, is a policy priority. Although, in general, participation is increasing, disabled children are less likely to be involved than non-disabled children and it is unclear to what extent children with complex needs or communication impairments are being included in participation activities. This article presents research exploring factors to support good practice in participation and discusses policy and practice implications.

Published in the 28 May 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline ‘The Participation of Young People in Developing Social Care’

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