Thursday, 20 November 2008

Empowerment: some nuances Following my note yesterday about representation and participation, Regen and Renewal reports some comments on the empowerment white paper made by Vince Taylor, head of strategic economic development at Sunderland City Council. He suggests that the empowerment plan could prove ineffective because 'few people are interested in playing an active role in their communities': 'The white paper focused too much on imposing the Government's view of empowerment on communities, rather than considering how people may want to be engaged.' Not new, but valid as far as it goes: the Ipsos-MORI report on empowerment based on New Deal for Communities data noted: ‘While there is a clear push from the government towards increasing community empowerment, the extent to which people want this is far less clear cut. The evidence suggests a spectrum of interest, with only a very small minority at one end who want to be actively involved, a larger minority at the other end who have no interest at all, with most in the middle.’ Yes, most people just want to have a say or to know they can influence things if they choose to. But low levels of motivation could at least partly be explained by the fact that most of us have grown up with habitual detached indifference on the part of authorities towards us - indeed systematised discouragement of seeking to influence. My take on this is that empowerment is not a constant commodity, but reflects its cultural context: it is capable of being increased. It's the cultural context which should be the subject of change - putting it crudely, with the objective that it should not be seen as exceptional to want to have influence on decision-making processes; nor exceptional, for those with decisions to make, to want to involve those affected. I'd also tender the heresy that community development is not necessarily the sole essential ingedient in the mix. CD promotes empowerment among other things through involvement. Involvement is not the only source of an increased feeling of influence or of the sense of power. However, by promoting collective involvement, CD is likely to multiply that sense of increased influence more powerfully than anything else. To my shame I never got round to spending time on it before, but it happens that this morning I sought-out and read the CLG definition of community empowerment (page 12 here) which, er, needs a bit of work: 'Community empowerment is the giving of confidence, skills and power to communities to shape and influence what public bodies do for or with them.’ 'Giving'? What about the confidence and skills that residents already have but which is overlooked or stifled? I don't like to be too picky, but definitions need a bit more thought than appears to have been spent on this. Why not just say ‘bestowing our largesse on the peasants’ and be done with it? Yes, it is about power, but increasingly I'm wondering whether 'empowerment' - presented as feeling one is able to influence - is...

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