Post-neoliberal youth policy and its effects on youth service provision: the molar force of policy in youth service assemblage

This paper presents findings from an ESRC-funded research project about youth work practice and subjectivity in the context of youth service policy. I explore the changing nature of policy related to youth services in the continuing aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007/8, and the effects on local service provision.
The research took place between 2010 and 2013, during the greatest upheaval to youth services in over 50 years, and in a wider policy context of austerity, localism and ‘open public services’ reform. These reforms have dramatically reduced financial flows to youth services, and introduced new policy narratives of ‘social investment’ accompanied by novel organisational forms, networks, and contractual arrangements that have changed the nature of risk for service providers. I argue this collectively amounts to a distinct phase of ‘post-neoliberal’ policy making in education and youth services. Meanwhile, ‘youth’ has changed as economic conditions have accelerated longer-term trends towards greater complexity and attenuation of transitions into adult life.
This paper works with Deleuze & Guattari’s notions of assemblage and desiring-production to develop education policy sociological analyses appropriate to the fluidity and mobility of policy and public services at this time. This approach takes seriously the idea of policy as a force that not only enforces categorisations and symbolic territories, but that decodes and deterritorializes in processes that see long-inscribed categories of youth service and public and voluntary organisation lose definition. The project consisted of 10 ethnographic case studies undertaken over two years in youth services across England. This conceptual and empirical basis is used to consider the constitutive force of policy in its interaction with the materiality of local communities, by exploring the productive interconnections of policy discourse, subjects, buildings, localities, and monetary flows.
In this paper I follow the molar lines of policy to argue that contemporary youth service assemblage serves to destabilise characteristic aspects of youth services in the UK. The terms of ‘social investment’ have driven forms of service evaluation that support ‘impact investment’, and have created heightened insecurity around youth practitioner employment. Open-access, community-based provision has become increasingly unthinkable, while project forms of working dominate that rely on deficit categorisations of young people, and that shorten relationships and formalise interactions with young people. Ultimately, I claim that post-neoliberal policy making has further diminished the capacity of youth services to operate politically even as young people suffer growing social and economic injustice.