Monday, 16 June 2008

Well-being and empowerment (updated) This morning I interviewed someone who's been trying to implement a community engagement approach in her role helping to provide a local public service. Sometimes it's hard to appreciate the gulf between the harried and hassled local practitioner, constantly adjusting to change, and the policy context beyond. Through a project I was involved in, a few months ago she suddenly appreciated that the thrust of government policy was in the same direction. Knowing this, my correspondent felt hugely empowered and given confidence to be more assertive in her organisation, thereby accelerating a change of attitude towards citizens. Here's something else that will make just that sort of contribution. The Young Foundation's local well-being project, working with IDeA and the LSE, has published a report on practical empowerment initiatives in neighbourhoods, called Neighbourliness + empowerment = wellbeing: is there a formula for happy communities? It argues that the right kind of work on 'neighbourhood and community empowerment' is likely to increase wellbeing in three key dimensions - By providing greater opportunities for residents to influence decisions affecting their neighbourhoods By facilitating regular contact between neighbours By helping residents gain the confidence to exercise control over local circumstances. What the report seems to do really well is to distil some wishy-washy key contemporary social issues into focused practical points, and this paper looks like it could really give momentum to the efforts of local practitioners and local politicians who have been grappling with (or perhaps avoiding) All That Stuff about social capital, well-being, neighbourliness, involvement, democracy, responsibilisation and so on. The report puts forward several case studies of empowerment 'done well' (from Manchester, South Tyneside and Hertfordshire) stressing the significance of the balance of control. Yup, it all comes down to mature understandings of the power issues. But it's also the case that this is an institutional perspective on the issues - this comes across as an impressively crafted practical guide for local officers on trying to stimulate a greater sense of well-being at local level. I think we still need more work to bring local people's experience of such initiatives, and of initiatives they establish and run themselves, to the surface. Postscript... Two other thoughts about the report. It seems to have little to do with neighbourliness, which hardly gets mentioned because the scale of the activities and schemes described is well beyond what is likely to be most people's mental map of neighbourly interactions. Perhaps that's understandable from the practitioners' point of view: so is this another example of the appeal of the N word brought on by the exhaustion of the C word? Much of what is described is good ol' fashioned community development, and the document marks the continued tension between that field of established practice and the trend to take bits of it and call it something else - which again might be fine, so long as the lessons and principles of community development are appreciated and taken into account.

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