Leadership: Involving young service users

Antonia Dixey
Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Involving young people in shaping services can transform their lives and those of others. However, participation must be meaningful, fun, interactive and may generate outcomes you are not expecting.

Antonia Dixey is chief executive of The Participation People
Antonia Dixey is chief executive of The Participation People

When I was 14 and looking to open my first bank account, my dad gave me some sound advice. “Once a bank gets your business, it’s usually for life,” he said. “They make it very difficult for you to leave, so choose a bank that will reward you for being a loyal customer.”

Over the years, I have seen the same ethos succeed when involving young people in decision making.

Once young people can see a change they have made in their community, they are likely to want to do more. Better than that, they will want to get their friends and family involved too.

Of course, there are statutory duties and obligations you need to fulfil but take a moment and think about it from another angle.

By involving young people in decision making, you can build trust with future families, engage with your future workforce and build a generation of community leaders.

It will also help increase the positive perception of your services, give key employability skills to young people and will help you save money long-term by creating services driven by the people who use them.

I have seen many mistakes being made over the years by organisations trying to speak to, consult with and engage young people. The most common include ‘involving young people because I have to’.

This creates structures that are formal and boring, often mirroring adult political structures. Young people know what you are up to and will vote with their feet – straight out of the door.

This approach can also mean you get the same group of young people turning up to everything. They have a huge amount of investment piled into them, but what about the other young people in the community?

Another common mistake is chasing numbers.

Often organisations opt for quantity of young people as opposed to quality engagement. They ask the wrong questions or the wrong type of questions and end up with a lot of data sitting idle, not informing strategy or budget decisions. Why bother?

Some ask us to consult young people to find out the answer to X but already know what answer they want, which is Y. When young people come back with Z, the adults try to justify why Y is better. If you were a young person, would you get involved again?

Using adult jargon is also off-putting. At The Participation People, we help organisations strip down the jargon, use short sentences and bullet points, report their work using one-page summaries, photos and colourful graphics and capture evidence creatively, such as using film, images and cartoons.

Data overload

Too much data can be a problem too. For example, there is a wealth of public health data telling us mental health, obesity and sexual health are all problems for young people. What I don’t see is where young people are being involved in solutions.

We have created a culture where services are commissioned to them, not for them or with them.

We sometimes hear that young people are difficult to engage with or “hard to reach”. I couldn’t disagree more.

You need to give young people topics they are passionate about, problems to solve and structures to manage their expectations of what is and what is not possible.

Create a fun and interactive project with a fantastic facilitator and the freedom to try out new things and make mistakes.

Do all of this and suddenly you will gain a direct line to those who use your service, a group of young people that manage and lead themselves, budgets that decrease, allowing you to invest elsewhere, and young people who advertise your services for you, for free.

So the keys to success are involving young people because you want to, opting for quality and quantity, ensuring you are comfortable with getting a different answer to Y, removing jargon and asking the right questions. Get it right and the benefits are huge.

You get young people who are engaged, empowered and involved, and professionals who are also engaged, excited and having fun at work. Formal meetings become short, productive and fun, and language is accessible to all.

Young people will tell you about community problems before they happen and thousands will know about the services you offer.

You can create structures where adults and young people solve problems together and you will find “hard-to-reach” groups of young people accessing universal services organically.

Above all, you will be helping to create a community that is actively involved and invested in its future.


  • Involving young service users does not cost a lot of money but the benefits are huge
  • To do it effectively, you need an excellent staff team that love their jobs and a culture that promotes creativity, imagination and fun
  • Invest in facilitation equipment such as big sheets of paper, colourful pens, materials for cutting and sticking, and play dough
  • Use short and colourful report templates. We use infographics a lot
  • Don’t be afraid to use technology. We all have smart phones, so use social media and take a lot of selfies

Antonia Dixey is chief executive of The Participation People

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