Assessing the Effect of and Support for Youth Involvement in Public Decision-Making: A Report on Nine Case Studies

By McCall, Douglas; Hill, Brian et al. | Canadian Journal of Public Health, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

Assessing the Effect of and Support for Youth Involvement in Public Decision-Making: A Report on Nine Case Studies

McCall, Douglas, Hill, Brian, Johnston, Mary, Canadian Journal of Public Health

Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children should have the right to express their views freely and that those views should be given due weight.

Health Canada (1995) has defined a set of turning points for Canadian society in regard to the development of children and adolescents. One of those national goals for the healthy development of children and youth in Canada states, in part, that we should "ensure that young people have opportunities to participate in decisions about their healthy development. "

Governments, institutions, agencies and professionals are actively seeking to involve youth more in decisionmaking. More municipalities are becoming "youthfriendly" (CCSD, 1998). School systems are involving students on school boards, inviting students to serve on advisory committees with adults and helping student councils to play a more active role in school and school district decision-making. Public health organizations are promoting youth-led programs and activities.

But our knowledge of such youth programs is scant. A recent literature review (Shannon & McCall, 1997) has described the research on impacts of various models and categorized the programs. The Canadian Coalition on the Rights of the Child is training adult-led organizations in how to involve youth (CMHA, 1995). Health Canada has conducted a meta-analysis of youth consultations (Caputo et al, 1998). However, there has been little critical investigation into the specific characteristics of effective involvement. We also need to know more about Canadian examples of direct youth involvement in decision-making.

As well, there has been little critical examination of the process and the impacts of such involvement. Are youth truly being empowered? Are we really only reaching young people who are already active and successful in reaching their goals? Are structures and systems changing to enable youth to participate in a meaningful way? More importantly, does such youth involvement lead to measurable changes to any of the factors that determine the health and development of children and youth? These factors might include improved access to preventive health services, enhanced social support to youth or changes in health-related behaviours.

The Canadian Association for School Health, with the support of the Childhood and Youth Division of Health Canada, has had an opportunity to investigate some of these questions in a report on several case studies. These nine examples come from the education, municipal and government sectors, including:

a provincial student leadership centre

a school board that has a tradition of electing a student as a school trustee

student involvement in a school accreditation review

a project to reduce violence and conflict in schools

a youth advisory committee to a municipality

a youth centre sponsored by a police department

a municipal youth showcase

a youth advisory committee to a federal department

a youth contest to create an advertising campaign on smoking

For geographical convenience, these examples were chosen from British Columbia and Ontario. This article reports briefly on all of these case studies. Full reports on all of them are available on the web at:

Go to that website to see how and why these examples are successful.

Youth Involvement in Public Decision-Making

Within that broader context of involving youth in general, the case studies reported here examine how young people can be involved in public decisionmaking. In other words, are youth truly being involved and supported so that their voice is heard and acted upon? Five ways in which youth can be involved in the decision-making process were selected for this project:

1. Youth Representatives on Governing Board

2. Youth Representatives on Standing or Ad-Hoc Committees

3. Youth Advisory Committee

4. Formal Consultation of Youth

5. Delegation of a Program or Service to Youth Management

This study was an attempt to get beyond the enthusiasm about youth accomplishments to see if the systems were truly changing how they operated. A critical but supportive lens was used to determine if the necessary supports and processes were in place to truly support youth participation in decision-making.

A research review and consultation with experts led to the development of an extensive set of criteria that were used to assess the case studies. Space does not permit the reproduction of these criteria here in full, but a summary is provided. (Go to the Health Canada website to see the criteria and consider applying them to your situation.)

These criteria were used to interview selected adults and the youth in the case studies. (The underlined parts of the case study highlights below show how we used those criteria.) There were some differences in the perceptions of the youth and adult participants but none were found that indicated major conflicts among adults and youth in how they understood the situation.

We really appreciated the cooperation that we received from the adults and the youth. These are some of the best examples of youth involvement in the country and it was a pleasure to learn about them and to see the commitment and genuine success that these efforts have produced.

The use of the many questions in our investigative framework showed us the strengths and the weaknesses of the examples. The participants were not shy about speaking about gaps or problems that they had to overcome. Their successes, evident in our reports, were also many and important. In the reports we noted things such as:

The members of the Youth Advisory Committee for Environment Canada are representative of the "activist" youth audience they are trying to reach.

First and foremost, the Ottawa Youth Centre makes the youth feel safe to speak about their interests and concerns.

Several developmental needs of youth are being met in the BC Student Leadership Centre activities. Youth leaders are recognized at conferences, competencies such as facilitation skills are being promoted among provincial student facilitators. There is time for fun and socializing at provincial BC Student Voice conferences.

Following the first SafeSpeak Week at Gladstone School, access to preventive health services was enhanced as referrals to school counsellors increased significantly.

Full reports of the case studies are available on the web at:

Criteria to Assess Youth Involvement

The criteria developed to assess youth involvement include over 200 specific questions under these categories:

1. Relationship between Youth Involvement and the Priorities of the Sponsoring Organization

a) How do the characteristics of the sponsoring organization relate to the youth involvement? (purposes and planned outcomes, history of youth involvement, the nature of the youth leaders and audience, policy framework, resources assigned, numbers of youth involved, number of adults to be involved)

The Nature of the Youth Involvement

a) How will youth participate collectively; is it episodic, developmental, structural or are various youth groups being linked together?

b) How will youth be involved individually? as core leaders? as volunteers? attendees? recipients?

c) What are the roles to be assigned to youth? specific tasks? to be consulted? as initiators? other?

3. The Processes being Used to Involve Youth

a) Are basic principles about youth participation being respected?

b) Are barriers being addressed?

c) Are enabling factors in place?

d) Are the developmental needs of youth being


e) Are the youth accountable?

f) Are adults helping the youth to participate?

4. The Nature and Evidence of the Impact of Youth Involvement

What evidence is there of the impact of the youth participation in the decision-making of the organization?

on the youth leaders?

on the youth audience?

on other health determinants?

For full details & copies of these criteria, go to: www.hc-sc-gc-ca/hppb/cbildhood-youtb/spsc

Environment Canada Youth Round Table (Advisory Committee)

Environment Canada has established a Youth Round Table that acts as an advisory committee to the department. The Round Table has 12 representatives selected from among several national and provincial/territorial youth organizations. The Round Table advises the Minister and officials from the Action 21 Program within Environment Canada. Between meetings, the Round Table members communicate by e-mail and through a private website. Advice to the Minister is communicated by letter from the Round Table. A full-time staff person has been assigned by the Department to facilitate the work of the committee and youth involvement in the department. The Round Table has suggested changes to the application process and funding criteria for projects. Youth representatives are now part of several Environment Canada advisory committees.

Youth Centre, Ottawa-Carleton Police Department

The Ottawa-Carleton Police Youth Centre is a recreational centre for young people in west Ottawa. 1,400 youth of all ages and backgrounds participate in a variety of programs that include recreational activities, events and clubs. The Centre was created by the Police Department following a drive-by shooting incident. The Centre has grown from very humble beginnings to now include a building, three full-time and several part-time staff and many volunteers. The Centre is a model of preventive style community policing. Youth are encouraged to participate in activities, organize their own activities and develop their leadership skills. A Youth Council provides feedback to the staff. A Staff Sergeant has managerial responsibility for the Centre. The Centre now provides consulting support and coordination with schools and other agencies. Centre staff also interact with families and the youth themselves outside of the Centre. Local crime rates and drug use declined in the neighbourhood after the Centre began its work.

Nepean Youth Advisory Committee

This Advisory Committee, established in 1994 to advise the City Council on youth concerns, is comprised of six young people selected from applications solicited through notices in schools. The role of the Committee is similar to that of other advisory committees in the city. A staff person is assigned to support the Committee. A member of City Council chairs the group and reports back to Council. Recently, the Committee has begun to become involved in organizing projects.

Health Canada: Challenge to Youth Media Contest

As part of the Tobacco Demand Reduction Strategy of Health Canada, the Marketing and Partnerships Division of the department organized a contest for young people to create advertisements on tobacco. The youth participation was solicited by placing ads on Much Music and its French language counterpart, MusiquePlus. Youth were encouraged to phone a 1-800 number and record their ideas for ads. 19,000 calls were made in response, with over 10,000 considered to be entries out of a total audience of 3.5 million. The 20 winners were given the opportunity to see their ideas produced by an ad agency into 20-second ads for movie theatre audiences. The ads were then placed in cinemas by Health Canada. Recall interviews done with audiences exiting those movie theatres show that the audience recalled the content at the same levels as other professionally produced ads. The ads were also placed on Much Music, MusiquePlus and YTV programs for five weeks. A random sample telephone survey of youth revealed that over 45% of respondents recalled the ads without help and 89% recalled the ads with help from the interviewers. The majority of respondents liked the ads and found them to be hard-hitting. This example shows how youth can be involved in decisions about the content or artistic direction of youth advertising.

Richmond, BC A Young School Trustee

Since 1993, the community of Richmond, British Columbia has been served by a young person serving as a regular school trustee. For the second consecutive term, a student has been elected to this position. The young person was elected as part of a slate of candidates, a normal practice in BC. This election and the role played by the youth reflects a community consensus and a shared purpose among education professionals in the school district that young people have much to offer to the school system and the community. While obviously supportive of "student concerns", the person is not designated as such, nor does he assume the role of speaking on behalf of youth. Indeed, his mandate, as he and others perceive it, is to represent the entire community. The role of secondary school Students' Councils within the District has been elevated to participate actively in consultations with the School Board. Elementary school Students' Councils are also becoming more active in organizing school activities and events. This example shows how a community can elect youth to determine public policy and how that election reflects other practices in the school district.

Nepean Youth Showcase

The Youth Showcase, organized each year in the City of Nepean, highlights the capabilities of young people. The event began several years ago in response to a conflict between the City and youth over the availability of the city's Sportsplex facilities. The event has the support of a manager and two part-time coordinators and is organized by a group of youth selected by the city staff. Schools and other youth organizations are encouraged to submit names of youth and suggestions for activities. The most popular event with youth tends to be the "Jam" each year. The Showcase and the core expenses are sponsored by the City, but funding from corporate sources is necessary to complete the program. This event has been successful in reaching a large, varied number of youth in the City each year. Consequently, the relationship between young people and the City has been enhanced.

British Columbia Student Leadership Centre

The BC Principals' and Vice Principals' Association (BCPVPA) has supported student leadership for ten years. Currently BCPVPA has four initiatives: the BC Student Voice; the Student Leadership Centre; SELF (Student Educational Leadership Foundation), an independent charitable foundation dedicated to raising and granting funds in support of student leadership activities; and the Student Leadership Advisory Committee. All the initiatives involve youth in decisionmaking. BCPVPA has one adult staff person who spends part of her time supporting student leadership activities, as well as two part-time youth staff members who coordinate the Student Leadership Centre and support BC Student Voice activities. Students are now represented on most education ministry advisory committees and the BC Student Voice has successfully influenced the revision of the province's personal and social development curriculum.

Gladstone School - Richmond, BC Healthy School Project - SafeSpeak

Gladstone Secondary School, based in east Vancouver, provides opportunities for many students to contribute to a positive school environment. This case study of youth participation in decision-making focuses on SafeSpeak Week, a week of activities promoting prosocial skills and non-violent conflict resolution among students and staff. SafeSpeak Week is a project of the School Climate Committee, a joint student and staff committee. Established after a drive-by shooting at the school in 1993, the committee was initiated to improve the school's reputation in the community and to address safety issues in the school. A variety of activities within the school during SafeSpeak Week enable all students to participate. In addition to the members of the Students' Council, the event draws from the school's Peer Helper Program (that includes at-risk students), the student drama classes (who wrote a play for the event) and other students who traditionally do not participate in school activities.

High School Accreditation Richmond, BC

The BC Public School Accreditation Program requires all schools to undergo an assessment process. Considerable time and energy are put into the school's internal assessment and development of a five-year growth plan. The school receives a grant from the Ministry of Education to implement strategies developed in the growth plan. The accreditation process at Charles London school in Richmond, BC, included a survey of students, a student subcommittee and student participation in the development of the school's growth plan. Students met during lunch hours and after school to contribute to the accreditation process. Efforts were also made to involve students from minority cultures in the process. Increasing and improving student participation in the school has become part of the school's growth plan.

Conclusions from this Study

Public health staff can encourage public institutions to include youth in their decision-making. To be effective, such involvement should:

ensure that the youth involvement is tied directly to sponsor goals and priorities

offer a variety of roles and ways for youth to be involved

pay considerable attention to the processes, barriers and enabling factors that support youth involvement

monitor the impact of the youth involvement




Shannon & McCall Consulting Ltd. (1997), Youth-Led Health Promotion: A Framework for Investigating Effectiveness and Creating an Inventory of Tobacco and Other Programs, Canadian Association for School Health, Tobacco Reduction Program, Health Canada

Canadian Mental Health Association (1995), Working With Young People: A Guide to Youth Participating in DecisionMaking, Canadian Mental Health Association, Toronto, ON. Caputo T, Weiler R & Green L (1996) Peer Helper Initiatives for

Out-of-the-.airstream Youth, Health Canada, Ottawa, ON CCSD (1998), Progress Report on Children, Canadian Council on Social Development, Ottawa, ON Health Canada (1995), Turning Points, Family and Child Health Unit, Ottawa, ON, pp. 15-16

[Author Affiliation]

Douglas McCall is the Executive Director of the Canadian Association for School Health, Brian Hill is an independent researcher and Mary Johnston works with the Childhood and Youth Division, Health Canada

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