7 Policy and the practitioner
Policy is often represented as a process in which those who make policy – for example, national or local government or individual organisations – decide on the overall direction of travel and establish the rules and structures which determine how this should be delivered. Policymakers like to work with metaphors which suggest control: for example, ‘policy levers’ which can be ‘pulled’, or ‘policy mechanisms’ which can be ‘fine-tuned’. These indicate a mechanistic, top-down, transmission model in which the designed intention is realised in practice.
It does not take a very thorough examination of policy initiatives to realise that this is rarely the case; that changes in policy undoubtedly lead to changes in practice, but not always in the ways intended. For example Gus John (2017) argues that there is never a more urgent time for the government to pay attention to youth policy. Practitioners have an important role in shaping, transforming or resisting the innovations and reforms which policy introduces. Andy Rixon argues that youth practitioners are not simply implementers of policy directives; rather, they filter or mediate these through their own sense of what is best for young people:
What practitioners do is mediated through their own beliefs and values. Some will have professional or occupational codes of values or ethics that can give them another source on which to draw in order to be openly critical of the implications of legislation or policy where these are seen to run counter to the interests of young people.
The process of policy implementation might better be understood as a dialogue, in which the intentions of policy makers are translated or mediated by practitioners and the wider public as they move from policy intention to practical application.
When writing about youth work, Jean Spence describes the relationship between policy and practice in the following terms.
Work with young people is shaped by a combination of professional values and purposes, the needs of young people themselves and the imperatives of policy … but workers interpret policy through the lens of their professional knowledge and their understanding of the young people who come into their sphere of influence.
Similarly, Hazel Kemshall argues that people in face-to-face contact with service users retain a degree of power through their role as interpreters of policy in practice settings. Note how she uses the image of practitioners acting as a ‘firewall’ between policy and its implementation in practice:
It is also important to recognise that policies are also mediated by the workforces tasked with implementing them. Workers bring their own values and ideologies to bear on policy interpretation and delivery, and in the area of youth policy they may for example present ‘firewalls’ to the direct impact of current policies.
These studies show that practitioners have a vital role in mediating policy and influencing policy outcomes. They also support Foucault’s analysis of discourse as a process of making meaning which is never closed, but always open to contest, resistance and change. Our argument here is that it is only by engaging with policy, and understanding its motivating forces and the strengths and limits of its reach, that practitioners can fully exploit their own power, for influencing the impact of current policy, and perhaps even influencing the formulation of future policy.