Teenage picks

A wide range of agencies are being encouraged to develop
inclusion and participation for service users across the board. Yet
implementing such “inclusion and participation” strategies pose
challenges, both for service providers and for those who use the
services, and require attention if they are to bring about
worthwhile results.

Some of the challenges that service providers face in orchestrating
“inclusive” selection procedures have been highlighted by the
participation of a mixed group of young people in Torbay, Devon, in
the recruitment and selection of staff for a new service funded by
the Children’s Fund, Connexions and the local education department.
The young people involved were not looked-after or clients of
social services in other ways, but the messages from the experiment
are transferable to participation by service users.

The strongest message from the evaluation, which was managed by the
Children’s Society, is that participation does not result simply
from bringing prospective users into a process. Participation needs
to be negotiated with service users, who need to be educated about
the process. Just to be “included” is insufficient. The experiment
also revealed that continued support is necessary, as is respect
for the pace of the group and of each participant.

Two primary conditions emerged for effective participation. One was
that the adult power involved in a given situation must be openly
discussed. This is not to say it has to be relinquished – simply
that what powers were retained and what were negotiable must be
made clear. Participation occurred for this group of young people
when the powerful adults indicated, through behaviour and actions,
that they were responsive to their views and contributions. This
was not purely about power shifting to the young people.
Participation did occur despite power being retained by the

The second primary condition was the combination of “hard” and
“soft” factors involved in participation. “Hard” factors included
the opportunity to participate – in this case the invitation to be
involved in staff selection, the bringing together of the young
people for this purpose, and payment.

But other “soft” factors also have to be present. These include how
adults relate to the young people; whether communications are clear
and understandable; if the demands on individuals are appropriate;
and whether adult behaviours are perceived as being appropriate.
This also includes the capacity to have fun and enjoy each other’s

The participants in this series of selection interviews were a
mixed group in age (13-17), gender and abilities. “Young people”
are not a homogenous group but possess different skills and
aptitudes. The evaluation highlighted some of the critical
conditions required to achieve a sense of worth and value within a
disparate group.

If a process is to be truly participative, considerable resources
need to be devoted to the preparation, training, support and
payment of young people. The preparation must include clarity over
what is required at the outset, and attention should be given to
concerns and fears about the demands that are being made.

The importance of listening, communicating value and respect,
thorough communication using plain English, payment and
refreshments were also vital ingredients. Job descriptions and
person specifications need to be comprehensible if young people are
to be able to ask candidates relevant and searching

The evaluation also shows that it is essential not to replicate the
type of environment that some may have experienced all day at
school. Attempts to integrate aspects of planning and preparation
for the recruitment process within school days – rather than
expecting young people to meet up after school – met with mixed
success. While one event worked, on another day all the young
people failed to turn up.

At this point, had to face the fact that we were forcing a pace
that was unacceptable to some of the participants. We also had to
question whether we were merely replicating the learning
experiences they encountered each day in school. The
adult-dominated time-scales for things to be “delivered” and
“performed” meant the process was in danger of becoming pressured
and no longer fun – and the young people were voting with their

What mattered for these young people was that they experienced
respect. It is essential that they feel that they are listened to
and that they are an integral part of the process. Adults will need
to work tirelessly to create these conditions, and to examine the
ways that some behaviours can be (mis)construed as maintaining the
power hierarchies that exclude children and young people. Any
agency that believes children and young people can participate in
recruitment and selection without the necessary infrastructure and
planning is guilty of tokenism, and is likely to further alienate
those invited to participate.

To create the conditions that encourage participation and
distinguish it from other forms of adult-dominated practices, the
pace needs to be tailored to suit individuals. There were crucial
times when failing to pace the work properly could have resulted in
the group failing to meet its objectives. Adult practitioners need
to develop effective relationships and to work creatively with both
the group and individuals. Also, time needs to be allowed to
communicate appropriately with parents and carers, given that
transactions are taking place with 13 and 14 year olds, which
involve continued commitments and payments. There are obvious child
protection and safety issues to be observed.

When the recruitment process had been completed, the young people
evaluated the process by interviewing each other and some of the
applicants, as well as detailing their individual views of the
experience. From an initial gathering of 12 young people, nine then
took part in at least one panel interview and in the following
evaluation. Six went on to do further interviews, evaluation and a
presentation to agency managers within a recruitment training
event. Data were obtained from several sources including analysis
of interview notes taken by young people. Insights shown were often
forthright and unquestionably perceptive.

As a result of this process, staff have been successfully recruited
and taken up posts. The interviews with successful and unsuccessful
applicants have validated the relevance and appropriateness of
questions asked of them, and the conduct and competence of the
panels was viewed overwhelmingly positively.

Finally, the young people themselves were able to say how much they
had gained from the experiences. That they felt they had
participated – sometimes. Most felt it had been a worthwhile
experience, and some would have been happy to participate
regardless of payment. But they did want those responsible for
recruitment and selection to recognise how “things will have to
change” to ensure that it continues to be positive. The
relationships with this group of young people, and the commitments
given to them, should ensure that this practice is developed

Much has been learned. The process was, at times, unceasingly
pressured and more will need to be done to avoid this.
Participation will be seriously undermined if the necessary
conditions that fuse the “hard” and “soft” factors are rushed. The
bringing together of these factors can result in the true
participation and empowerment of service-users. Failure will result
in experiences that repeat feelings of exclusion and
disempowerment. If one part of the process becomes rushed, the
quality of others may be diminished. Routine evaluation is needed
to ensure quality participation results which can then be
translated into other practice settings.

Nigel Hinks is an independent research and learning
consultant. Contact him on



The evaluation was funded by the Children’s


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