If we want young people to contribute more to society, maybe we should try asking their opinion

By Alma Grant, Helen Murphy and Saba Hinrichs-Krapels

Alma Grant and Helen Murphy recently completed a week’s work experience at the Policy Institute.

Here at the Policy Institute we have just launched a health commission led entirely by 18 students and recent graduates of King’s College London. The commission is funded by NHS England and intended to envision revolutionary changes to healthcare during the next 15 years.

Clearly we thought this was a good idea (and so did our funder), but we were curious to see who else had done something similar around the world. We started to look around to find examples of young people’s involvement in the creation of public policy. We were particularly interested in finding out whether involving young people affects the success of projects.

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By doing some non-systematic searches online we found numerous projects in which young people were involved to different degrees. In Australia, the Youth Engaged Policy project brought together 100 young people and policymakers to investigate how youth engagement is understood, the barriers and enablers to it, and the development of a framework to improve cultures and practices of engagement in federal policy processes. The project led to a report, Creating benefit for all, which came up with recommendations aimed at ensuring young people have a greater say in the economic, political and cultural life of Australia through policymaking.

In the UK, the National Children’s Bureau Young Research Advisors group plays a key role in ensuring the quality, relevance and impact of their research, and includes a diverse group of children and young people aged 7-18, recruited from across the country. There are also a number of youth councils or forums, such as the European Youth Forum  that brings together tens of millions of young people from all over Europe to represent their common interests, and the democratically elected Scottish Youth Parliament.

European network

We then started specifically looking for examples of where young people had contributed to, or changed, public policy, and were very excited to find a few successful projects. In an initiative by Berkley called YPAR (Youth-led Participatory Action Research) young people are trained to conduct systematic research to improve their lives, their communities, and the institutions intended to serve them.

A report by the UK Department for International Development contained a number of success stories, one of which is Bahrain’s National Youth Policy. Established in 2004, the project was created to address the national lack of strategy and policy on working with and for youth. It involved 16,000 ‘young people’ aged 15-30 (which consists of 8.9 per cent of the youth population) and was carried out in partnership with United Nations Development Programme.

Taking place over nine months between 2004 and 2005, the research process involved focus group discussions, surveys, consulting exercises and outreach programmes. The final outcome was a set of recommendations, 71 per cent of which were adopted by the government of Bahrain, including the formation of a national youth parliament, commission and development fund.

The manager of the project, Peter Kenyon, said: ‘I don’t know of any other exercise in the world that engaged youth at such a massive scale … It’s certainly something other countries can learn from.’

Collaboration

A similar youth-involved project mentioned in the DfiD report was set up by a civil society organisation in Sierra Leone. The organisation conducted a sexual and reproductive health rights needs assessment, which focused on education, specifically based around HIV/AIDS. A group of 20 young people aged 18-22 were given the skills needed to conduct research into this issue in 20 communities. Their findings enabled UNICEF to develop better out-of-school programmes for those unable to attend formal education, and provided the young people themselves with important research skills.

Something that both these projects thought was very important was to train the youth in what they’re doing. This was also put into practice in Uganda, where young people helped advertise and come up with ideas to keep their peers away from a life of violence. The participants were trained in strategy analysis prior to the start of the project giving them the skills they needed to effectively perform their tasks.

Media is key

Another theme to come out of this project was the importance of the media, which maximised the impact of the work, enabling participants to reach a wider audience from both rural and urban areas, allowing a more diverse range of ideas, and making people aware of what they were doing. They believe that the use of media was one of the reasons they were so successful, and it should be used in other projects.

Luckily, we have put both those lessons into practice in our student-led commission so far.

We have been really pleased with our own experiment with the student-led commission so far. It has been a delight to interact and engage with these young people and provide an opportunity for them to have a say about the future of the NHS. We look forward to the commission’s recommendations and findings, which will be released early next year to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the health service.

Overall, in our opinion, using youth in the creation of public policy can create and improve policies in an innovative way, while helping empower and educate young people so that when it’s their turn to run the country, they have the skills necessary to do a better job than former governments.

Find out more about the Student-led Commission on the Future of the NHS.

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