Saturday, 18 March 2006

Empowerment and participation: so what? I spent most of last week running an international seminar for the British Council on empowerment and participation in the network society - an exhausting but exciting experience with numerous little insights. (The pic includes two palestinians, a latvian and an israeli, bashing out some key lessons). A week later I'm left with two strong impressions about the topic. First, our understanding of how we evaluate and measure empowerment is very primitive. Of course, we can quantify participation in various ways. But what tools do we have to demonstrate changes in, say, the influence that an individual or group has over the decision-making processes that affect them? It's clear there's much work needed there, but the second impression I'm left with is rather more worrying. It seemed to me that participants who came with clear knowledge and expertise about e-government and the practice of democracy in the network society had a fairly shallow understanding of the experience of disempowerment, and of the centrality of empowerment to establishing meaningful democracy. The original version of the seminar majored on social inclusion, and I wonder if we have lost sight of that a little. This time we had an inspiring version of the 'engagement game' being developed for the Department for Constitutional Affairs by Drew Mackie and David Wilcox; plus the complete policy background from Ian Johnson of the DCA - not to mention presentations about (for example) mobile phone networks and domestic violence, online and disabled people, ICT and regeneration in a low-income neighbourhood, empowerment and participation with Turkish speaking communities, etc etc, plus a characteristically lucid and entertaining video-conference with Stephen Coleman. But I'm still left with the concern that significant systems are being constructed all over the place to process consultation and representation, at various geographic scales, where perhaps 'empowerment' is felt to be just another subject, somehow vaguely related to governance and government but not where the real business is. We know that there's a democratic shortfall which is to do with a sense of powerlessness; and yet we struggle to make the connection, perhaps because we don't spend enough time listening to the experiences of people who experience exclusion. Hopefully the impact of the recent Power Inquiry will be lasting, but I'm not optimistic.

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