The Southampton Youth Forum provides a platform for young people (aged 13-25) to influence the city’s legislative agenda through campaigns that seek to shape both the direction of policy and its implementation to ensure that it works as efficiently as possible for youth.
Problems and Purpose
The Southampton Youth Forum was founded to provide a platform for young people (aged 13-25) living, working or studying in Southampton to influence the political agenda in the city and lobby for improvements for young people. It enables young people within the political boundaries of Southampton City Council to influence the city’s legislative agenda through campaigns that seek to shape both the direction of policy and its implementation to ensure that it works as efficiently as possible for young people. The Forum is similar to others found in the UK and replicates much of the agenda-setting work of the UK Youth Parliament, which does not have representatives in Southampton.
Background History and Context
The Southampton Youth Forum was set up by Southampton City Council in 2015 alongside other participatory mechanisms to increase residents’ involvement in the Council’s deliberative process, including the Southampton People’s Panel¹. As part of this, the Forum falls under the “Southampton Speak Up” strategy, aimed at young people². The Forum’s format was shaped by consultations with young people in 2015-16, which saw the new format with Youth Forum Champions introduced in November 2016. After the Champions were introduced, consultations in November 2016 focussed on finalising a plan for how the specifics of the Forum should work, with young people guiding the decisions on timings, locations and other details¹.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Councillor Simon Letts, the Labour leader of the Council, initiated projects to improve the way that the Council got feedback across the city, and as part of that Councillor Dan Jeffery (Cabinet Member for Education) sought to expand that process to young people through the Youth Forum¹.
The Forum receives no funding, although there is a small budget from the City Council for participation activity across the city¹.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Advertising for participants was done with a mixture of social media campaigning and poster campaigns, as well as targeting local schools. Their aim is to annually recruit 30 regular members between the ages of 13 and 25 to be “Youth Forum Champions” who take the lead on organising the Forum’s events and campaigns throughout the calendar year. Specific groups of young people targeted included those in secondary education and students at the local universities, the latter done through attempts to engage their Students’ Unions.
Young people who do not wish to commit to becoming a Youth Forum Champion may still participate by turning up to meetings and engaging with campaigns. Participants are self-selecting in that they are expected to register an interest in attending and approach the Forum to become a member.
Meetings are held once-monthly in the council building in Southampton City Centre at 5:30pm on a Tuesday, with additional meetings occasionally held in the same location at different times to discuss individual projects. Participation within individual years fluctuates due to the impact of school holidays and exam periods on a largely secondary school cohort of Champions.
Methods and Tools Used
The Youth Forum uses a relatively standard deliberative procedure: issue identification, deliberation and collation of priorities, simple-majority vote, and project implementation. After issues/projects are voted on, the Forum's participants meet throughout the year to discuss how best to address/achieve them. All decisions require a simple-majority vote. Participation in the implementation phase takes a variety of forms including community meetings, information and opinion gathering and sharing, awareness-raising events, and collective action with other community-based organizations.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The aim of the Forum is to identify issues for young people in the city and come up with plans to deal with them. The priorities and key campaigns for each year are set in a deliberative meeting in January, where attendees discuss issues and come to a collective list of all the potential problems the Forum could look at. There is then a simple majority vote in the session to decide on three issues to focus on in the Forum that year. In 2017, for example, the Forum’s priorities are mental health, outdoor activities for young people, and life skills.
After the initial deliberative meeting, meetings throughout the year then focus on a discussion of how to address the priorities for the year and organising events to achieve those aims. Decisions made in meetings tend to be based on simple majority voting of those present, provided that decisions are consistent with the initial set of priorities and the overarching goal of making improvements for young people. Participation in a given year varies from meetings to holding events and putting campaigns into practice. Events and campaigns may consist of anything from information gathering to raising awareness of an issue to supporting another organisation’s campaign.
The Forum’s monitoring body is the Council’s Children and Families department. The department co-ordinates the activities of the Forum and act as a liaison between the Forum and major stakeholders within the city. Additionally, as a member of the Children and Families department chairs the meeting and broadly sets out what will be discussed in each meeting, they retain the formal agenda-setting power in individual meetings. In practice, this is often used to invite representatives of Council departments to meetings who wish to get young people’s opinions on their services or future plans.
Reporting back progress into the wider public is done through a mixture of different methods. There is a focus on social media, but equally face-to-face interactions to raise awareness of the Forum and its activities are used to report back progress at various street stalls and events. Further efforts to disseminate information about the Forum to the public have occurred through promotion on radio shows.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Forum is ongoing so it is hard to get a definitive reading on its overall influence, but a number of projects have produced tangible outcomes. Awareness raising campaigns in previous years have shaped Council policy around young people and their priorities. As an example, this year the Forum held an information-gathering campaign around mental health services for young people by designing and distributing a questionnaire for people aged 13-25 in the city to give feedback on their ideal service and advertising it within schools and events in the local community – such as the “Saints vs Stigma” event run by the Saints Foundation, a local charity. The information gathered was fed directly into decision-making on the future of those services and will help to shape future policy in this area. Likewise the Forum will hold a life skills event for children in the city in November 2017 alongside the Saints Foundation, where young people will receive workshops on important life skills.
Part of the difficulty in assessing the Forum’s influence is that successes have been promoted with a limited amount of success. While there has been good social media output from the Forum’s accounts and a few other stakeholders, this is difficult to keep up with and the section for the Youth Forum on the Southampton City Council website is both largely out-of-date and does not provide a centralised list of successes. Media coverage of the Forum’s activities since 2016 is non-existent, and that is another contributing factor to limiting our ability to assess the Forum’s influence and may have blunted the effects of the Forum.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
While the Southampton Youth Forum has improved the influence that young people can exert on the legislative agenda, there are a number of potential criticisms that are worth considering. Participants are self-selecting, which produces the risk that the Forum might have an unequal representation of young people in Southampton. This is particularly relevant when one considers that a problem of deliberation, and political participation more broadly, is that disadvantaged citizens tend to be under-represented in politics³,⁴ and those who are enthusiastic about promoting a specific policy or problem tend to be more likely to self-select⁵. Therefore, young people who self-select to attend meetings of the Youth Forum are more likely to be those who are disproportionately politically active compared with other young people in Southampton.
This has important ramifications for the Forum. If some groups within the city are under-represented, then it might be the case that some issues are left off of the Forum’s agenda. The problem of exclusion is present in other aspects of participation in the Forum too. For example, the decision to set priorities for the year in a single session in January excludes those who couldn’t attend that meeting from a say in the overarching agenda of the Forum for the year.
Likewise, the decision to hold the monthly meetings in the City Centre at 5:30 on a Tuesday evening might be potentially exclusionary for, for example, young people who are either working full time and then have to travel to the City Centre, or students who may have lectures up until 6pm on weekdays. The travel requirement could also pose a more direct problem with the effectiveness of the Forum. If a problem for young people is that it is difficult to get into the City Centre from a certain area, then this is something that the Forum could address, but if the people suffering from that problem cannot get to meetings, this issue would not be on the agenda.
This is perhaps more important than the Forum itself being representative of the general population, because in a forum it is necessary that all of the relevant views and problems are equally represented⁶, as opposed to simply being the case that the participants must be a representative sample. A simple solution here might be to hold mini-meetings in areas other than the City Centre at different times of day, to ensure that young people can bring new issues to the attention to the Forum, even if they cannot attend in person.
Another thing to consider when analysing the Youth Forum is the potential for the Champions to become an elite themselves. The opinions of participants in deliberation often change as a result of having been involved in the process, which can render the decisions they make different from those the populace they represent would have made in their position⁷. This may actually be a positive, with expertise gained in deliberation leading to a reduction in the problems of justification common amongst other deliberative bodies⁸.
Another concern is the extent to which participants have influence over the agenda-setting powers in the Forum, as this is a key part of evaluating how democratic a democratic innovation is⁹. While it is a positive that the overarching agenda-setting power rests with the participants, the fact that agenda-setting powers for each meeting lie with the organising body is a potential problem. A better democratic structure might be having a Chair drawn from participants with a constant rotation of office, or some other mechanism to ensure that deliberation is wholly participant-led.
One final point to consider is the impact of limited media coverage on the Forum’s success. There has been almost no media coverage of the Forum’s activities, which will reduce the Forum’s ability to disseminate information about itself to the wider community. This is partially down to the local news media environment in the UK, with only one large local news organisation (the Southern Daily Echo) in Southampton, and other local news consisting of branches of national broadcasters covering a wide swathe of southern England.
Deliberative Forum (method)
1. Personal Correspondence with Francesca Carr, Interim Senior Engagement Officer, Southampton City Council, 05 November 2017.
2. Southampton City Council, 2016. Southampton Speak Up!. [Online] Available at: https://www.southampton.gov.uk/Images/Southampton-Speak-Up-Children-and-... [Accessed 17 October 2017].
3. Sanders, L. M., 1997. Against Deliberation. Political Theory, 25(3), pp. 347-376.
4. Lijphart, A., 1997. Unequal Participation: Democracy's Unresolved Dilemma. American Political Science Review, 91(1), pp. 1-14.
5. Fishkin, J. S., 2011. When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
6. Dryzek, J. S. & Niemeyer, S., 2008. Discursive Representation. American Political Science Review, 102(4), pp. 481-493.
7. Lafont, C., 2015. Deliberation, Participation and Democratic Legitimacy: Should Deliberative Mini-Publics Shape Public Policy?. Journal of Political Philosophy, 23(1), pp. 40-63.
8. Bächtiger, A. & Parkinson, J., 2014. Mapping and Measuring Deliberation. Micro and macro knowledge of deliberative quality, dynamics and contexts. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
9. Smith, G., 2009. Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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