Damian Haasjes, Wiltshire County Council

Describe your role
I am the Lead Officer for Voice and Influence in the Youth Development Service of Wiltshire County Council. We have a small team of 4 workers (including me) who cover different areas of the county and different areas of work e.g. young assessors, UK Youth Parliament and Wiltshire Assembly of Youth, consultation, etc.

My job is to have a strategic overview of the voice and influence work undertaken throughout the county and this means I sit on a participation advisory group for the Children and Young People's Trust Board and various other strategic groups.  Management of staff takes some time, but all the staff are great so that's easy. The great thing is that I still get the chance to do work with young people and help plan and run most of our larger events with the V&I team - this includes things like democracy roadshows, the elections for Wiltshire Assembly of Youth and our young assessors programme. I have a great mix between strategic and frontline work.

What makes a good participation worker?
The key for me is respecting young people and enjoying their company. I can teach new workers lots of extra skills but if their attitude towards young people is poor at the start, there is nothing you can do. Once the work starts I feel that participation workers need to be hugely flexible but never loose sight that they are working to ensure young people are heard - they are not the spokespeople for young people themselves. Great communication skills are essential as most workers will deal with a range of people from young people with learning disabilities to the Leader and Chief Exec of the Council.

What are the barriers to involving children and young people?
I agree with all the varied answers, which other spotlight members have put forward - time pressures, lack of understanding of the work, lack of resources, etc. It is very difficult to gauge how far we have progressed in the last number of years. I believe that the base line for engaging young people in decision-making, which affects them, has risen but now we have to deal with tokenism. People know they need young people's opinions but look for a quick and easy solution to this.  Our young people became so sick of this they developed a consultation protocol, which took people about 10 minutes to fill out - this quickly stopped tokenism and made people think about what the purpose of the consultation was.

The lack of structural and strategic embedding of voice and influence work is a real problem too. The youth development service in Wiltshire has developed LYPIGs (Locality Young People's Issues Groups) which get young people and decision makers together 4-6 times a year and look at local issues and concerns for young people. The great thing about this is that it is part of the structure of the youth service, Locality Youth Service Plans need to have LYPIG involvement and agreement, the first sift of Youth Opportunity Fund applications takes place here and every youth development co-coordinator and manager in the youth service is committed to these meetings. The Voice and Influence team help to support these events and ensure that WAY members are there so local issues can come back up the county level.

What are the benefits?
I suppose as the research says, we get more effective services that young people use more fully. I feel there are lots of other personal benefits for young people too. Recently our young assessors ran a taster session to recruit new members. They decided that they would each give a short 'testimony' about how being involved with young assessors had affected them. They wrote these themselves and read them out on the night - it was quite amazing. They all described increased confidence and self-esteem, better relationship skills and a number spoke about how the experience had been a highlight of their lives. Recently Fiona Black (Chief Exec of the NYA) visited and we set up a meeting with some of our young people. She asked what difference had their involvement made and they discussed being heard, etc. She asked what difference it had made to them personally and one young person simply said - it has changed my life. I think that is a pretty great benefit.

What tips do you have for effective participation of children and young people?
Embed the work and don't do it all on your own. The success of the work in Wiltshire is not due to the hard work of a small team of 4 people, it is due to Voice and Influence work being embedded in the entire Youth Development Service in a real and meaningful way. Youth workers were originally 'slightly difficult' feeling that V&I work was integral to all they did anyway, but once we were able to work with them to develop some structures and demonstrate the impact of specific participation work they took it on board and ran with it. Having said that, the entire V&I team has learnt loads about youth work and how to use it effectively in our practice too - a mutual learning experience.

The other thing is that the Leader and Chief Exec of the council are very supportive of our work and have helped to ensure that V&I work is taken more seriously right across the council. One last thing I say is that Wiltshire is sometimes not the most innovative Council in the area of V&I work (although we don't do too badly!) but what we do we do well. We ensure that we have time and resources available to support and train our young people - this even extends to things like providing transport from anywhere in the county to ensure young people are not excluded. We put our money where our mouth is - and trust me in regards to transport costs in a rural county, that is high. I do think it is important to have a good strategic overview as well, the balance between front line and 'board room' is important and they should inform each other.

What is effective participation?
Effective participation means ensuring that every young person is able to engage in decision making which affects both them and their community to the level they choose. This means having a wide range of opportunities, options and methods available for young people to engage with.

Participation Works is a partnership of…
British Youth CouncilChildren's Rights Alliance for EnglandKIDSNational Council for Voluntary Youth ServicesNational Youth AgencyNCB