Engaging youth voice in policymaking – a strategy for collaborative and transformative change


Amy Mehrton

Community resilience in an age of complexity

The world is becoming increasingly complex, with the daily news cycle characterised by multiple crises. These crises range from ongoing financial, physical and mental health, and societal impacts linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, to the emergent economic and housing crises, and the imminent threat of future disasters and emergencies associated with climate change.

Community resilience helps mitigate these risks, ensuring that social connections are in place to prevent incidents and impacts (where possible) and support communities to recover (should incidents occur). However, traditional models of resilience centred on planning and preparedness for emergencies and crises are no longer suitable to address these overlapping wicked problems, operating at the intersections of economy, environment, and society. Instead, there is an observable shift within contemporary approaches towards a more holistic framing, prioritising multifaceted responses whilst placing notions of community wellbeing at the forefront of policy interventions for everyday and extreme challenges.

Changes and challenges – what is happening for young people?

Increasing complexity presents challenges for the community; however, young people are disproportionately impacted. [1]They have been significantly affected by shifting social, economic, and technological drivers that have negatively impacted their wellbeing.

These include:

Collectively, these changes present significant challenges to community resilience. Young people are at increased risk of disengagement from education, reduced participation in employment, and increased risk for anti-social behaviour. There are also more extreme threats, such as attraction to radical ideologies and violent extremist organisations. [6]

Empowering young people through enhancing engagement

Today’s youth’s experiences and needs fundamentally differ from the generations before them. Policies must be reinvented to align with the current context and needs, using contemporary, collaborative, critical, and creative approaches.

It is increasingly important that the voice of young people is prioritised and embedded in policy. Speaking with young people, and an intentional commitment to developing strategies to embed youth-specific participatory frameworks within various stages of policy design is essential to understanding what works and what doesn’t – now and into the future. This has been reflected in the recently launched Make it 16 campaign, which advocated for younger people to have a better say in policies that will shape their futures.

Governments, not-for-profit groups, and industry increasingly recognise the importance of the youth voice. Despite this recognition, the platforms, processes. and approaches have yet to shift from traditional approaches to youth-focused engagement models consistently.

This is often the case as Australia’s youth are a profoundly heterogeneous population regarding everyday realities, socio-economic and cultural aspirations, the systemic barriers faced to deliberate, and empowered engagement within society. The diverse and changing character of the youth thus poses a significant challenge to developing fit-for-purpose policy responses, as a one-size-fits-all approach is not tenable. Further, embedding participatory and youth-led approaches to policy and implementation presents its own challenges, as they are often considered resource and time-heavy and must link to the unique cultural contexts of youth populations. This requires adopting strategies and approaches that depart from conventional top-down, expert-driven solutions instead of relational, engaged, and action-oriented approaches informed by and developed alongside youth voices.

How do we provide platforms and opportunities for young people?

Policy processes must shift from merely consulting about young people to drawing on approaches that facilitate co-producing policy with young people, empowering them to participate, lead, and advocate. Government mindsets may need to shift to accommodate this approach, recognising and valuing young people as experts in their experiences. ACIL Allen recently worked with a state government department to facilitate youth-led research into educational needs, with the voice of young people directly informing future policy directions.

Different techniques are required to engage young people effectively. Traditional engagement approaches, through town hall meetings and focus groups, are unlikely to activate or reach young people. Technology-driven models, reaching people in their own spaces, and using dynamic mechanisms support improved participation. The prominence of lived and living experiences as critical frameworks informing physical and mental health and LGBTIQA+ fields also serve as valuable referential points to guide how policymakers can adapt and replicate similar approaches, strategies, and tools to youth-specific policy contexts.

Capability and capacity building will be needed, for policy makers and young people. For policymakers, facilitation skills are likely to look different, and youth-focused frameworks will be required to move toward leveraging co-production and action-oriented strategies. For young people, capacity building is required to understand civic processes, self-identity, and the skills required to self-advocate and contribute to paradigmatic shifts to systemic barriers impacting their everyday lives and prospects for the future. Our team has worked with youth researchers to build facilitation, consultation, and analysis skills to lead qualitative research and evidence gathering, supporting youth-led evaluations in mental health and social cohesion.

Active consideration must be given to ensuring representative views, considering the diversity of experiences. Platforms must find ways to engage young people from youth organisations, schools and universities, regional and rural areas, as well as metropolitan, Indigenous communities, different socio-economic backgrounds, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, members of the LGBTIQA+ community, and those living with disabilities. Specific consideration must be given to exploring intersectionality and its impact on policy design.

Prioritising policymaking that actively engages youth voice and participation is a valuable avenue for policymakers as it has the capacity for proffering critical insights and creative solution-driven analyses that may go unrecognized when attempting to respond to issues faced in society. It also serves as an enriching space to build youth competencies and capabilities and facilitate pathways to recognize and develop youth as community leaders spearheading change at the societal level. Reframing the policymaking context in this manner can serve as a pertinent space for transformative change, contributing towards a more productive, resilient, just, and sustainable society that benefits us all. In this, the policy space also shifts to a collaborative and multifaceted space of co-developing solutions to some of the most complex policy problems of our time and into the future, from the top-down and bottom-up.

[1] Ezzy, D., Bouma, G., Barton, G., Halafoff, A., Banham, R., Jackson, R., & Beaman, L. 2020. Religious diversity in Australia: rethinking social cohesion. Religions, 11(2), 92.

[2] Markus, 2019.

[3] Wyn, J., Khan, R., Dadvand, B. 2018. Multicultural Youth Australia Census status report 2017/18. Melbourne, Victoria: Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne.

[4] Bull, M., & Rane, H. 2018. Beyond faith: Social marginalisation and the prevention of radicalisation among young Muslim Australians. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 12(2), 273-297.

[5] Hancock and Zubrick, 2015.

[6] Avis, W., 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic and response on violent extremist recruitment and radicalisation.