When I ask the street reps I've been working with, do they feel they are able to influence decisions affecting their area, there is a bit of pondering but definitely no evidence put forward. A little probing confirms that they feel they can influence action - getting some rubbish cleared or maybe dealing with a flagrant drug-drop - but not decisions about how services are run or resources targeted.
These are active citizens who feel relatively powerless, partly because of their low visibility and in many cases the need to remain anonymous. For example, none of the group I was working with the other night would go to court and testify against another resident. If we ask 'what would it take to overcome this and raise their profile?' the answer obviates the purpose: it would be a peaceful, ordered neighbourhood where people showed respect for one another, and street reps were (in their terms) unnecessary.
Still, thousands of practice agencies want evidence that government investment is leading to citizens feeling more empowered. That's what the empowerment indicator (NI4) is for, and there's a lot to be said for it. NI4 tells us the proportion of people who feel they can influence decisions affecting their local area. But it's causing a bit of head-scratching.
For example, Inspire-East recently published an absorbing (if cunningly-hidden) report on behaviour in relation to NI4, but confused a few of us right at the start of their exec summary with this:
'measured through the 2008 Place Survey... in the East of England, as nationally, 29% of respondents agree they feel they can influence decisions that affect their local area... the Citizenship Survey shows that in 2008, nationally 39% of people agree they feel they can influence decisions affecting their local area.'
If you go to page 8 of the report, you get a sort-of explanation. They're different kinds of survey. But still, a 10% discrepency doesn't seem trivial. The next survey could ask, do you feel disempowered by statistics?
At the same time, the National Empowerment Partnership has published a document which seems to have very similar intentions to the Inspire-East report, attempting to explain 'what drives feelings of influence?' I've only read the summary, but it's told me some significant things. For instance, that among people who have been civically involved in the past 12 months, some 56% say they cannot influence decisions. This would include the street reps I've been talking to. Being involved, as the report says, 'is no guarantee that people will feel they can influence decisions' - indeed, feeling informed is a stronger driver of sense of influence than is actual involvement in decision-making.
The street reps go to meetings, and tell me they feel listened to, and that it's good to have the chance to give your opinions. But as the NEP report suggests, it could be that through the process of getting involved, people can gain greater insight into what they are not able to influence.