Between Strategies – a short input for practitioners in the youth participation field
Year of production: 2023
Governing our societies to the benefit of people, in all their variety and diversity, is probably one of the most complex tasks for humanity. Institutions are in place to enforce the rules that hold us together, (re)distribute resources, and set the frameworks that steer our actions as actors in society.
One of the most common types of framework set by institutions is policy documents, in particular strategic ones. Having fewer teeth than legislation adopted by Parliaments (laws), the strategic frameworks usually steer the direction of a particular sector by setting thematic priorities and commonly agreed goals. Strategic policy frameworks also help guide the way resources are allocated, identify key players in the respective field, and set the vision for where the respective sector is headed. Shortly called Strategies, these frameworks should be based on data and on practitioners’ experiences, while setting priorities that guide us in how resources are allocated.
Policy and practice: Why do we need the two strategies?
As with any other important area of our societies, we need a Strategy to set how we govern our resources to support a particular segment of the population, in this case young people. At the level of the European Union, cooperation in the youth field – a competence of the Member States – is set by the Resolution of the Council of the European Union and the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States meeting within the Council on a framework for European cooperation in the youth field: The European Union Youth Strategy 2019 – 2027. The terminology is important because it shows the level of political commitment of this Strategy: by being adopted at the Council level, it means that Governments commit to aligning their respective legislation at a national level to contribute to the achievement of the vision and objectives set in the EU Youth Strategy.
As the Executive branch of the European Union’s institutional design, the European Commission is also following the political direction set by this Strategy and this is reflected in how it allocates the resources dedicated to the youth field. In other words, it is reflected in the following aspects that directly impact practitioners (youth workers, youth organizations, etc.):
- The way EU programmes are designed, keeping in mind that the programmes represent the financial arm of the Strategy, the tools which help achieve in practice the vision, goals and objectives of the EU Youth Strategy.
- The thematic priorities set for the EU Youth Programmes, ex: inclusion and diversity, digital transformation, environment and fight against climate change, and participation in democratic life.
- How resources are distributed among priorities, but also depending on the level of political commitment, how many resources are allocated (to achieve this Strategy) from the total EU budget.
The EU Youth Strategy 2019 – 2027 itself is a concise document, structured around three main core themes: Engage. Connect. Empower. Each of the themes sets out measures the Member States and the Commission could take. As a novelty, the Strategy also comprises the Annex of 11 Youth Goals, which express, in a nutshell, the vision of those involved in the EU Youth Dialogue.
The Youth Participation Strategy provides a strategic approach on
youth participation in democratic life – one of the thematic priorities of EU Youth Strategy – as it is implemented through the EU youth programmes. As mentioned in the document, ‘the Youth Participation Strategy seeks to contribute to the achievements of EU Youth Strategy and the EU
Youth Goals related to participation. It intends to enable a variety of actors to harness more effectively the full potential of the programmes’ (Youth Participation Strategy, pg 6).
I would argue that the most significant merits of the Youth Participation Strategy for the practitioners’ community are that:
- It brings us all on the same page at a conceptual level – in this document, youth workers and youth organisations working with EU youth programmes can find valuable explanations to what is youth participation in democratic life, what are the different forms of participation, and it offers insights into the line of thinking around youth participation, which can be helpful in writing project applications.
- It clearly identifies the stakeholders in the youth sector when it comes to youth participation in direct relation to EU Youth Programmes.
- It shows us a strategic direction on how to use the EU Youth Programmes to achieve stronger, better youth participation in democratic life.
- It clarifies the level of commitment to be implemented – unlike the EU Youth Strategy, which is a political statement, the Youth Participation one is rather a supporting document that guides the stakeholders of EU Youth Programmes. In concrete terms, it means a youth organisation could not hold a Ministry accountable for not implementing the Youth Participation Strategy.
The three main pillars that influence both policy agendas and the way our practical implementation is conducted (ex. by the way Erasmus activities are designed, for example) are research – policy – practice. Also called the triangle, these pillars inform each other and their spheres of action. In the youth field, research on youth participation informs policy making, but it is also in return, informed by practice.
Among the many ways in which policy frameworks are directly connected to practitioners’ work I could mention:
- By understanding the policy frameworks, the level at which they operate, and making the distinction between frameworks that have a political commitment (i.e. the EU Youth Strategy) and frameworks that offer a strategic approach to practice (i.e. the Youth Participation Strategy), practitioners now understand how to work better with EU programmes, what is expected from them in terms of achieving strategic objectives, how to effectively design activities that are more likely to get funding, and at which political level they (want to) operate.
- Clearly and critically understanding the strategic objectives laid out in policy frameworks, practitioners adapt their youth work methodology, themes and activity design, so it aligns with the broader vision set in policies.
- Policy frameworks usually identify key stakeholders and make recommendations for actions at different levels. By referring to policies, practitioners can assess if and to what extent they engage with other relevant stakeholders, who is missing from the picture and who they should keep accountable for what.
In particular for practitioners, among the resources they can use to stay up to date with policy are the Participation Toolkit and the Participation Resource Pool resource website. In addition, it’s important for practitioners to know when to work with which of the two Strategies:
- For policy shaping at national level and influence significant thematic priorities (ex. EU Youth Goals) – we look at the EU Youth Strategy.
- To have a strategic approach towards youth participation in our daily work – the EU Youth Participation Strategy.
Key policy moments and how to look at them (in relation to the two strategies)
During the next period, there are three key moments practitioners in the youth participation field should keep in mind, as they may bring shifts at policy level that directly impact their daily work:
- EU Youth Strategy 2019 – 2027 mid-term evaluation: carried out by the European Commission in the first part of 2023, by the end of this year there should be a report available showcasing the results of this mid-term evaluation. Based on the results, priorities and perspectives may change and this would impact the programmatic level as well (i.e. EU Youth Programmes)
- EU Youth Programmes mid-term evaluation – this is planned for 2024 and it’s particularly important for the contribution of youth workers, youth organisations, trainers, and other practitioners who work directly with the EU programmes. Your input will impact activity design, priorities of programmes for the remaining three years (of this financial cycle), and even resource reallocation.
- Next EU Elections in 2024 – one of the main drivers of political agenda is the elections, and the youth vote – as a component of youth participation – is crucial for how high on the agenda the issues young people care about will remain. Moreover, from a youth sector perspective, the added value of youth work, civic education through non-formal methods and the entire youth participation ecosystem supported by the EU Youth Programmes also lies in the political outcomes it (indirectly) leads to: electoral (dis)engagement being one of them.
To conclude, strategy policy frameworks have a direct impact on practitioners’ work, but the frameworks should always consider the grassroots reality and practitioners’ insights. A new generation of strategies and programmes (i.e. funding to implement the policies) will start being shaped in 2025 onwards. It’s crucial that youth workers, youth organisations, trainers and other practitioners are proactive in their contribution and shape the process and the next EU strategic policies.
This article was originally written for the 2023 issue of Mladje magazine.
Mladje is a Slovenian youth field magazine issued by Movit (Institute for the development of youth mobility, and the Slovenian national agency for Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps).