‘New Public Managerialism’ in Youth Work


For anyone working in education today, the spread of managerialism is pretty much a fact of life. Indeed, for anyone working in the public sector, chances are, they will be working under its influence. It has spread from the centre like a noxious gas – paying little heed to the ethos, culture and history of different professions and demanding that all lay down their arms before it. There has been little that has stood in its path. We all feel it. Some of us might not have been able to name it, but the language of targets, outcomes, performance indicators, accountability, efficiency, effectiveness and so forth has become the norm. It wasn’t always so, but it has become difficult to imagine a time when it wasn’t the case.  What is it? Muncie (2006) describes managerialism as a:

…connected, coherent, efficient and above all cost-effective series of policies and practices… through which an economical and accountable system can be created…[and is]… characterized by the setting of explicit targets and performance indicators to enable the auditing of efficiency and effectiveness (p775).

Although this way of working has a longer history within the business community its influence over the public and charitable sector has only come relatively recently.

So where does it come from and why does it exist at all? Welfare state reform has long been central to the agenda of British politics, but the impact of managerialism began in the 1980s, influenced by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher which ‘inaugurated a period of ‘permanent revolution’ that has affected the scale, purposes, forms and social relationships of welfare’ (Clarke et al, 2000: 1). This was in line with the ‘New Right’ belief that market mechanisms could control public spending and consequently managerialism was presented as the means through which  discipline could be introduced to the public sector to produce more cost-effective services.  The central thrust of their reforms saw the introduction of market-based incentives centred on privatisation, the creation of internal markets, externalisation and contracting. This period saw the beginning of the trend whereby external agencies were contracted by the government to provide services traditionally undertaken by the state itself. This approach was continued under New Labour, as its ‘third-way’ politics sought to imbue public policy with the market inspired mechanisms of managerialism – arguably going further than the government’s of either Major or Thatcher.


All have sought ways to inject market values of competition into the public sector. One method was to introduce a contract culture, where funding has to be fought for in a ‘bidding war’ with the result that finance is increasingly tied to evidence that providers are meeting the targets set down in the contract. This has had significant consequences for the work that youth work agencies carry out today.

The problem with the bidding process is that rather than being led by the expressed needs of young people it is led by the requirements set down by the funding agencies. As Purdue et al (2000) state, ‘improvisation around minimal structure is the key to collaborative and flexible innovation, yet the current practice is to tie all the details down in the bid, often before there has been any explicit community involvement’ (p131). It also means that when bidding for funds, agencies lay down guarantees and promises about the work they will undertake as they compete with one another for funding. Youth workers face a considerable ethical dilemma here. On the one hand they seek to promote the good that young people do, the pressures they face in society and the potential they have if only they were empowered and engaged. On the other hand, the contract culture forces youth workers to state how they will ‘fix’ problems of drug misuse, youth crime and, above all else, issues of unemployment – in short, how they will control young people around whatever ‘fad’ is popular in the media or policy. As Jeffs and Smith (1999) noted so presciently, ‘in this situation workers and managers have, understandably, responded by trying to sell youth work to funders on the basis of its potential contribution to solving the latest moral panic or policy ‘problem’.

pressure gauge under extreme stress with steam and red warning light

The process forces agencies to make a string of guarantees about targets and outcomes as they compete with other agencies to secure the funding offered. The result of this is that  programmes are tied down, from the very beginning, into the process of managerialism where ‘accountability and efficiency…are constructed entirely as achievement of performance targets’ (Baines, 2004: 7).

This means that from the outset staff are expected to regularly demonstrate to their line managers and then in turn to the funding bodies that targets and outcomes are being met. This is what Ball (2013) calls ‘performativity’ – terming it a system of ‘terror’:

It is a regime of accountability that employs judgements, comparisons…the performances of individual subjects or organisations serve as measures of productivity or output…these performances stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement.

At all times our performance as youth workers can be assessed, monitored, reviewed and scrutinised. There is no escape and we must all perform under its radar – sticking rigidly to the demands set out in the contracts. Deviation from the pre-prescribed outcomes means workers risk falling behind with the demands and risking censure, discipline or loss of job. What is more pernicious, Ball argues, is that the ‘terror of performativity’ sees individuals ‘self-discipline’ – we know what is expected and we know what is desired and as such, we have to stick to the core tasks. For all the talk of shifting power from the centre to local agencies, managerialism ensures that power has never been more centralised.


For us as youth workers, rather than being led by the needs of young people, this ensures that the work we do is led by the needs of the market as prescribed by funders (typically government). With such pressure on staff to deliver the governmental agenda the needs of young people take a back seat as failure to meet targets and outcomes will result in the agency not receiving funding. Doyle (2001) writes that this type of set-up is only ‘concerned with specifying what is to be learnt…and what is actually learnt, via performance indicators. The way in which learning happens – the process – is given less emphasis’ (p6). The result of this is that the educator has very little room to manoeuvre the programme to meet the needs of young people, who may have social barriers that have impeded their path to education or employment in the first place. The educator’s involvement in the process is often:

…simplified to that of a facilitator of the learning process…they are being driven towards managing accreditation and certification of learning because of its perceived significance in securing employment and because it attracts resources (Crowther, 2004: 130).

Because the employability agenda is so central, so dominant in everything we do today, the central concern for youth workers is to help the young people become more attractive to employers, ensuring that they are well-behaved, disciplined, are able to turn up on time, sit up straight, do as they are told and willing to slot in wherever they are required. This has seen a marked movement away from the youth work principles that defined much of the work throughout the twentieth century. Smith (2003) defines these as:

  • Being friendly and informal, and acting with integrity
  • Emphasising voluntary participation and relationship.
  • Committing to association.
  • Focusing on young people.
  • Being concerned with the education and, more broadly, the welfare of young people.

Smith suggests that this move from traditional youth work practice undermines the informal nature of youth work and ‘alongside this has also come an emphasis on gaining competencies (particular skills) rather than competence (the ability to live life well).’ As such, the argument is that we are no longer ‘doing’ youth work at all. What we are ‘doing’ is youth development – working upon young people and not with young people. This is a contestable point of course but is very much a debate that has being going for some time now, particularly for workers engaged in the employability agenda.

Make no mistake, utilitarianism is here with a vengeance. Youth workers are caught in the full beam of managerialism with little room for manoeuvre. This all sounds rather negative and there is little doubt that workers manage the competing demands of their own values with the managerialist agenda. But the room for manoeuvre is undoubtedly narrowing thanks to the requirements of this new regime of discipline.


For a really good discussion on this in the sphere of education read The Education Debate by Stephen J. Ball – Chapter one

Categories: Youth Work

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Nice one. Makes me think a lot about how funding for some services works and the reasons behind it.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: