A lot of people tell me how shocked they were at the sudden closure of Public Achievement and our sister social enterprise – Achieve Enterprises. In many ways no one was more shocked than those of us who worked there. The end came like a tidal wave. For me it has been a bereavement – both in terms of my personal sense of loss, and also in terms of the reactions of others. Some where quick to respond and check in on me – and others weren’t sure when was the right time to contact me – or what to say.
It is worth saying a few things – from my perspective – to put some kind of record forward. I don’t speak on behalf of the board or the staff – but as a co-founder, co-creator and leader of Public Achievement for 16 years. This is a personal perspective.
The first thing to say is that it was never easy. Creating a new organisation in Northern Ireland is hugely difficult – particularly when that organisation is actively trying to change thinking. In the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, a few of us decided that it was critical to engage young people in the process of making Northern Ireland work – for all of its citizens. We refused to see young people as ‘problems’ or in terms of moral panics. Whilst there is a lot of rhetoric about young person centred participation, there is – in my view – very little practice – beyond the models through which young people are invited to participate on the terms of adults, often in copies of ‘adult’ institutions (youth committees, Councils, Parliaments etc). I am going to write more about this another time. For now I will concentrate on the story of the fall of a great organisation which had and continued to make a significant difference in the lives of many wonderful young people, and in the lives of those of us who had the privilege of working with them.
In the early stages, there were clearly ‘clubs’ that we had to break into, and most available funding came with assumptions that young people were a problem to be fixed, and that programmes should fit different kinds of thematic boxes. It took us several years to get funding from the Youth Council for Northern Ireland for example – who had been funding the same small group of organisations for many years. We didn’t have a track record, which made it difficult to meet the criteria of various potential funders, though ironically most of them were asking for ‘innovation’.
We have never had what used to be called ‘core funding’. This made sustaining the organisation hugely difficult, as even when several projects were going well, once one project ran out of funds, the whole infrastructure became vulnerable. I will write another time about the fuller history of Public Achievement and our highly innovative work with Museums, the Fire Services, the Police, Politicians and many other bodies, and our great work with colleagues in other conflicted and post-conflict societies – but all of this in the end fell into what I call the culture of “the Land of a Million Pilot Projects”. It didn’t matter in the end how well or how often we innovated, there was no infrastructure to take what was working and to ‘mainstream’ it. What was ‘mainstream’ was bland, safe youth programmes that did little to help young people to challenge the structures of power and division in Northern Ireland. Much of it was aimed at compliance – creating obedient and well-behaved young citizens – often within their tribal and religious silos. Many of those we worked with had been excluded from this kind of provision, or had voted with their feet.
One of the great highs in our story was when the Atlantic Philanthropies recognised the potential of our WIMPS (Where Is My Public Servant?) project. They allowed us to take our ideas and to develop some of the best on-line tools for youth civic engagement seen anywhere. They allowed us to build a fantastic team of staff and to expand our model across Northern Ireland. However, after two years, Atlantic changed direction, and started disinvesting from youth programmes – just when we were reaching a critical level of impact. The second two years of their investment saw the grant drop steeply and left us struggling to secure match funding – which we did – but at a heavy cost in terms of having to cut staff and deal with more bureaucratic funders.
The end of the AP funding unfortunately coincided with a significant downturn in the overall funding environment here – combined with gaps in funding from the Youth Council and funds such as the OFMDFM Good Relations fund. The stop-start and unpredictable nature of these funds made it very difficult for us to retain staff and continue to operate.
At the end of 2013 we were asked by officials in OFMDFM to help with the design of a new programme called “United Youth”, which was part of the NI Executive’s new good relations strategy – Together Building a United Community. I was highly sceptical of the idea, as it sounded to me like politicians were blaming and scapegoating young people for community relations problems within and between communities. However the officials convinced us that they were trying to do something quite different, and in January 2014 we pulled together a group of skilled facilitators from a range of community relations organisations (under the auspices of Achieve Enterprises), to work with a group of 50 or so unemployed young people to co-design this new programme. If you’ve read my other posts, or know me at all well, you will know that I refuse to use the ’N word’.
During the event in the Waterfront complex in Belfast, the First and Deputy First Ministers, and Junior Ministers came to talk to the young people and promised them that United Youth would be up and running in months. Interestingly when they left the group, there was considerable anger among the young people who felt that they were being used for a photocall – rather than being listened to. We heard nothing more for 6 months, and it wasn’t until September 2014 that the application process opened up. We submitted two bids for funding and then entered a prolonged and tortuous ‘co-design’ process – where we competed with over 50 other bids for funding.
Ironically, this event was two years – almost to the day – before Public Achievement closed its doors.
We were told that funding would be on the ground from January 2015. It wasn’t. Delay followed delay, and we were really struggling. We wanted to throw ourselves into this project – believing that it really was a serious attempt to treat and work with young people differently. The focus on good relations and citizenship fitted very nicely with our model of ‘Civic Youth Work’ and the skills of our staff. As other pieces of funding came to an end, we lost staff and the organisation teetered on the edge of existence. We were told funding would start in the new financial year – it didn’t. We were finally told in July 2015 that our bids were successful, and it took until August to get letters of offer for both projects. Funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation for our groundbreaking work on young people and policing came to an end, as did funding from the PSNI ‘Policing With the Community’ fund. Mercifully, the PHF recognised our struggle and believed in our contribution, and granted us £75k in core funding for the 15/16 financial year. If they hadn’t, Public Achievement would have closed last April. We often found that organisations outside of Northern Ireland had a much greater appreciation of our work than local funders.
The United Youth pilots were supposed to last at least a year (indeed we were initially told they could last up to two years). In the end we had 8 months to recruit staff, young people and to make an impact on their lives. Whilst the funding was sufficient to run the projects, it didn’t cover all our costs as an organisation, and I had to continue working to secure other grants. In August I was very optimistic that we would manage this, and we had a number of bids in the pipeline. However, bids to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin were unsuccessful, and despite asking, we never found out why. The Youth Council changed the criteria for the ‘Youth Outreach’ fund which for years had allowed us to do really innovative work with young women on cultures of violence in their communities – including with a group of young Somali women through the HAPANI organisation. This meant that they were going to give larger grants to fewer organisations, and our bid did’t succeed – even after an appeal. Other funds that the Youth Council had previously disbursed – particularly ICT grants – were stopped after the Education Minister cut their budget. Although he had stated that the cuts were to bureaucracy and not front-line youth work, the reality is that – at least in our case – it had a very significant impact on front-line youth work with vulnerable young people.
The final straw took the form of a large application to the ‘Erasmus Plus’ programme. This significant EU education programme replaced the former ‘Youth’ programme and merged it with a variety of other funds. We had put together a very exciting international project, looking at how media could be used to enhance youth work in conflict situations in Israel, Palestine, the Basque Country and Northern Ireland. The threshold for funding was 60 marks, and our initial bid in the summer of 2015 scored 69. However, due to the number and scale of bids, the threshold was moved up to 70. We were devastated, but knew we had a chance to resubmit for an October deadline, and the British Council who administer the funds in the UK had given us good feedback on where our bid had fallen down. We resubmitted, very confident that we could increase the marks again.
Just a few days before Christmas I heard that our second bid had scored 75 percent of the marks, but the threshold had been moved up again to 86% of the marks. This was devastating news, as this grant would have given us the cashflow to finish the United Youth projects in March and hopefully move into the new financial year with new grants through a number of pending applications. The United Youth funding from DEL was given on the basis of 25% advance that was clawed back by one seventh with each monthly claim. In the first few months (as we were rebuilding our staff team and recruiting participants) the claims were less than the part of the advance being retained, so no money was coming back into us. Without new grant funding, we didn’t have the cash to continue to operate. I continued to work to try and secure new funds in-year – including from the Youth Council who had just been told that they were closing. I also met with our bank to try to secure and overdraft, but without new letters of offer, they were not prepared to give an unsecured loan. Public Achievement had a deficit, which it had hugely reduced over the previous 3 years, but this compounded the situation.
I notified the board that I was worried, and talked to our finance team. On the 15th of January, a meeting of the finance committee decided to advise the board that we may be insolvent. I was asked to speak to lawyers and met with the finance committee and an insolvency specialist on 19th of January. It became painfully clear that the organisation would have to cease trading and separate meetings of each board confirmed this decision on Thursday 21st January. On Friday 22nd January the Board told the staff that we were all without jobs and that the office was closing.
It was a truly dreadful day, and ended an awful period for me personally where I knew what was about to happen, but couldn’t discuss it with anyone. The staff and then the young participants on our United Youth projects were devastated. We were all shocked, stunned, and very, very upset. It took much of the day for people to start leaving the building, and as a group of staff, we headed out for a few drinks, hugs and more tears. Everything I had worked for for 16 years, was at an end. It has taken me a month to digest this and to find the presence of mind to write this. I am sure it will take much longer to recover from this traumatic experience, and I am not sure how many will truly realise what has been lost.
One piece of light that emerged from this tragedy, was how the young people on the United Youth pilots responded, as well as the huge outpouring on social media from all over the world – which was much more significant that I had imagined it would be. The two pilots were known as the LEAD (Learn, Enjoy and Do) project and the Be the Change project. The young people instantly became one group and rebranded themselves as LEAD The Change. At around midnight on 22nd February I received a message on Facebook from Junior Minister and former political adviser Emma Pengelly MLA – asking what had happened. I arranged to meet her the next day with Craig Murray – a wonderful young man who was one of the LEAD participants. I stressed to her that although the organisations were gone, I was very concerned about the young people and their ongoing learning. Emma secured a venue for the young people to meet – at the MAC in the Cathedral Quarter – and over the next 3 weeks officials in DEL worked to find a way to allow the pilots to run their course. Former PA staff initially volunteered their time to continue working with the group and then funding was made available to pay them. It is a testament to the character and dedication of the staff that they were able to put the needs of these great young people before their personal welfare.
I was impressed by Emma’s energy and ability to get things done. I hope that the #LEADTheChange young people will realise after time passes that this tragedy strengthened them. It brought them closer together and their outpouring of emotion on social media put them onto the radar of Emma and many others. I’ll write more another time about United Youth – and I feel strongly that the pilots were too short and that there is not sufficient evidence gathered to inform the roll-out of United Youth under the forthcoming Peace IV programme – but for now I should finish with my admiration for my former colleagues and the great young people who were part of Lead the Change. The lawyers and the boards will complete the legal process of closing both organisations and I will move on to find new ways of being the change I want to see in the world.