Friday, 05 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?
Active citizens and public services I've been in Cornwall, working with library and community development workers on community engagement for Truro library. One of numerous themes to come out of some intensive discussion concerned the relationship between active citizenship, volunteering, and community action. Someone raised awareness of a tension in the way volunteers are helping to prop up struggling services - or felt to be so doing - while the service is seeking to engage increasingly with residents active in local groups. What's the connection between those two categories? 'Active citizen' seems to be an umbrella term, popularised from political expediency in the 1980s, encompassing civic participation, community activity and volunteering. Essentially it distinguishes those who get involved (and who thereby, by implication, advance the interests of the state) from passive citizens who absorb what the state offers but do not contribute to the collective accomplishment of quality of life. Volunteering is a form of active ciizenship at the less political (and often less ideological) end of the spectrum. In public services - such as in a public library - volunteers will be subject to expectations about their role that have to be accommodated by their managing agency. Their degree of engagement with or commitment to the service ethos can be shallow, or not perceived as critical. Typically, a community activist by contrast is politically autonomous. They may be giving time, energy and expertise voluntarily but not perceive themselves as a 'volunteer'. Probably more consciously than the volunteer, they may be compensating for a shortfall in public provision; campaigning to increase or improve services; or otherwise, positioning community provision as distinct from public provision. The activist could be contributing energy to a campaign against the council, at the same time as helping a different department with some issue of mutual interest. They engage on terms that are acceptable to themselves and to the 'community' to which they claim allegiance. It's political, innit. Now that libraries are finding that the responsibilisation agenda pushes them towards both involving volunteers and engaging with activists - always to mutual advantage one hopes - will our understanding of these roles start to come into sharper focus? Do we need these subtle differences, these nuances in the relations between citizen and state provision? I suspect we do, very much, and the subtleties will increase not diminish.

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