Wednesday, 03 June 2009

Empowerment: but what about forces working in the other direction? A couple of days before the captain jumped ship, the department for Communities and Local Government published a systematic review of the evidence on Empowering communities to influence local decision making. There's a distinguished collection of researchers behind it, who point out that the community empowerment agenda is still in a nascent stage. But I worry that policy is only looking in one direction. Local practitioners are a crucially important resource in developing this agenda and bringing it towards fruition. It is important that government clarify the objectives of empowerment and give a sustained commitment to an agenda that may take a while deliver notable successes. These simple messages imply the need for developing accessible, inclusive and facilitated strategies for empowerment. The community and voluntary sector and specifically community development techniques have an important role to play here. The research identifies criteria that drive and define empowerment across six specific mechanisms - asset transfer, citizen governance, e-participation, participatory budgeting, petitions, and redress. There are two summaries - a short and a less-short - and it's useful stuff. What bothers me is that government consistently and unproductively takes a mechanical approach to cultural problems. Much of our official culture is blindly disempowering, often in the misguided name of detached professionalism. Yes, getting these mechanisms right will make a difference, but what about all the embedded forces working in the other direction? Last week I attended a meeting run by a division of a social services department, with nine or ten professionals around the table and three 'ordinary citizens'. It was a breathtaking demonstration of apparently unintentional disempowerment: the way the entrance of the citizens into the room was preceded by secret session about them; how one of them was told to keep quiet as she was 'not part of the process'; the lack of welcome or explanation of process; the negative body language; the turning away as they left; the 'wait outside please' to be followed by a communicated 'decision', which itself in turn was unclear; the failure to thank them for coming or to recognise their expertise or commitment. These were neutral residents who were trying to help with certain social problems. How would the structures of disempowerment be cranked up for people who were perceived guilty of some misdemeanour, I wondered. Such processes coagulate around bureaucracies, and even working across disciplines the participants fail to notice what has happened to the way they treat human beings. It all contributes to a terribly constraining culture of disempowerment all around us. Could we please have a policy initiative designed to crack some of this open?

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