London—In an effort to pursue a single, comprehensive national youth policy, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor government has launched a Children and Young People's Unit and created a new post of Minister for Young People.
It is just the sort of idea being pursued by proponents of the Younger Americans Act in the United States, where the 34-member National Collaboration for Youth is pushing congressional legislation to help create a national youth policy backed by new youth development spending.
But while federal government gridlock looms in the U.S., it looks like significant progress is being made in the United Kingdom. Many in the youth field here have long argued that when it came to young people, the right hand of government didn't know what the left was doing. Policy decisions taken in one area would have effects that caused problems in others - no one had an overview, and no one had overall responsibility for youth policies.
One of the mantras of Blair's administration has been the need for "joined-up thinking" on policy issues and "joined-up government" when it comes to delivery. This new unit and post is true to that ambition by operating across previously rigid departmental boundaries.
"We would get visitors from other parts of Europe who would ask us what U.K. youth policy was, and it was really difficult to answer," says Jon Boagey, a spokesman for the National Youth Agency. "We really just had a number of decisions taken in different government departments. Things are beginning to change."
The new youth unit is located within the Department for Education and Employment, but answers to the new Minister for Young People, Paul Boateng. Its work will also be supervised by a high-powered committee of ministers, chaired (significantly) by Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, the man who holds the government's purse-strings. Other committee members include the ministers for Health, Education, Social Security and Culture, and Media and Sport.
This kind of cooperation is so new that it has caught some observers off-guard. "We very much welcome the idea of the unit and the committee, but it is rather a strange structure," said Veronica Plowden, national coordinator of the Children's Rights Alliance for England. "That's one way of doing things cross-departmentally, but we can't yet see how it is going to work."
Much may depend on the personality of Boateng. Renowned as a snappy dresser, the former lawyer has a fairly streetwise feel about him, though some young people have admitted they find him intimidating. He will have to win the confidence of young people and their advocates, but has already shown that he is not afraid to get out and meet young people. He initiated last year's consultation exercise, "Listen Up," where he and colleagues talked with young people about their hopes, fears and expectations.
Speaking at the unit's official debut, Boateng promised: "I'm determined we should build on the Listen Up experience and ensure that young people become an integral part of the government's policy-making process so our polices are not only for young people but also by them."
The unit will keep a policy watch but also has cash to splash. It was launched alongside a $700 million fund, most of which goes straight to local youth projects run by nonprofits. This first round of funding will go mainly to projects for five-to-13-year-olds, but the unit has policy responsibility for those up to 19. Early indications of the type of work it will support include peer mentoring, counseling and advice services, parenting education and programs of out-of-school activities, much like the types of programs envisioned by the Younger Americans Act.
The latest developments fit in with a range of other initiatives for children and young people. These range from the Sure Start program, which is targeting support at young families in poverty, to the Connexions Service, which is providing a personal adviser (a new kind of youth worker-cum careers adviser) to any 13-to-19-year-old who wants one.
These measures certainly would not amount to everything that the U.S.-based National Collaboration for Youth and its partners hope for. The focus on all-around youth development is not there; indeed, some youth advocates see the stress on combatting social exclusion as threatening funding to mainstream generic youth work.
But by creating a focus for policy, the change creates a new level of accountability. British young people and those who work with them will now have one government agency to turn to, as well as a minister and staff to complain to (or conceivably to praise) and who have the responsibility and the power to make changes.