Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Youth Voice in Municipal Government: Understanding the Roles and Impacts of Youth Councils

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 4:10 PM
Johnson II (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Mary Collins, Astraea Augsberger and Whitney Gecker, Boston University
There are several reasons why youth councils can have a critical role in municipal governance.  First, from a human rights perspective, youth have a right to participate in decisions that impact their lives.  Second, from an empowerment perspective, youth gain information about their options and rights, develop skills in civic engagement, and may feel more empowered in their community.  Third, from an enlightenment perspective, youth provide up-to-date, relevant information that can lead to more comprehensive and better-informed governmental decision-making.  In essence, both individual youth and their communities can benefit from increased youth participation in governance.  Decision-making may become more effective and just.   Despite these potential benefits there can be many challenges to effective engagement of youth in policy activities.

The current study examined the scope, structure, functioning, and impact of youth councils in city governments in the Boston metropolitan area.  Our empirical study of youth councils began with compiling a full listing of towns and cities in the Boston metropolitan area (85) and identifying (via web search) those municipalities with youth councils, commissions, or other youth bodies within city governments.  To further verify the existence of youth councils we contacted the mayors and town managers of all 85 metropolitan areas.  A total of 23 existing currently operating youth bodies were identified and contacted for interviews. 

Phone interviews were conducted with key informants (n=23) to gain in-depth information regarding the youth councils’:  origin, development, structure, youth involvement, and impact in policy/programming/practice.  Interview notes were handwritten and typed up for analysis.  Data was analyzed using Braun and Clark’s (2006) stages of thematic analysis.  Interview data were supplemented by publicly available data (mission statement, meeting minutes).

Interviewees consistently believed in and supported the idea of youth voice in government; however, the structure, scope, and actual capacity of the youth councils varied considerably.  Variations were found in the titles of the youth bodies.  They had differing origins (many originating due to community concerns related to substance abuse).  While some councils were stand-alone commissions chartered by town councils and mayors, others were embedded into Youth and Family Services, Mental Health, or Recreation departments.  The composition of these municipal bodies ranged from all-youth to all-adult boards with several having a mix of youth and adult representatives, each with varying degrees of autonomy and policy-making powers.  Examples of successful impact on policy, programming, or practice ranged in their goals and empirical importance but informants continued to envision this as an eventual outcome.   Additionally, methods for achieving authentic youth voice in government decisions were identified.

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