Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Empowerment is a good thing, so what am I not happy about? You can't get away from empowerment. There are conferences and workshops and training going on all over the place. I'm not signed-up to many lists, but my mailbox is peppered with invitations and blurb about empowering citizens / communities / residents, in relation to housing / health / safety / environment / education / motherhood / apple pie. Fifteen years ago we wouldn't have believed it could happen, ten years ago we might have aspired towards it. Now empowerment is fashionable. I think there's an industry self-generating a lot of activity and I'm suspicious. This is not to denigrate the work of many who are delivering from experience lots of sound learning points to people who appear to need them; nor specific policy events which in themselves may be wholly valid. But a culture accumulates; and there is a precedent. Round about 2003, the field of social inclusion and new technology became counter-productively transformed when government started putting up huge chunks of funding without much thought about what was needed in local situations, thus attracting many who were willing to spend it for them without the burden of values or the inconvenience of insights into the nature of exclusion. I've been outspoken about that before, once or twice. Part of the difficulty is that many London-based suits don't speak to people who have the dirt of estate life under their fingernails, unless for a photoshoot and through an interpreter. They meet together in London events to problematise the issue as 'out there', thus ensuring that they do not see themselves as part of it. One of the consequences is that any action to be taken becomes the subject of organisational management (control) rather than local networked response. There's also an increased risk of professionalisation, leading to the situation where some designated people can 'do empowerment' and the rest of us can't, which makes no sense. Perhaps I'm getting too cranky in my old age, but I can't help suspecting that the processes that I identified the other day, which assimilate, appropriate language, insist on consensus and manage dissent, could in due course absorb the theme of empowerment itself. Now there's a perverse irony. What words would we feel able use for empowerment if its meaning were confiscated?
Street reps: an everday story of trust and power The other day I was running some workshops with street reps in Shipley with my daughter, three years since the first set of workshops I ran with them. On the surface, the initiative has gone well, with a good sprinkling of residents taking up the role and ready to talk about it. And their contribution seems to have had an impact. For example, the proportion of people in East Shipley who say that rubbish and litter lying around is a problem has decreased from 50% to 36% in three years. Anecdotally, the drugs presence has diminished significantly as people have at last felt supported in raising concerns. But there is disquiet. This is a predominantly white low income area, part of which comes within the 2% most deprived in the country. One report notes that a lot of people feel that all the ‘big’ regeneration money goes into areas of central Bradford dominated by black and minority ethnic groups, and that ‘white Shipley’ misses out. Well, I don't know the central areas of the city, but there's no evidence of any kind of regeneration money going into the two neighbourhoods of Shipley where I've been working. So it doesn't feel wrong to sympathise if these people feel a sense of marginalisation and abandonment. What do we expect from the community cohesion indicator? The percentage of residents who believe that people from different backgrounds get on well together declined a disconcerting 10% (from 66% to 56%) between 2007 and 2009. The national average is 76%. So it was not totally unsurprising, if unnerving, to overhear one of the street reps delighting in the prospect that a BNP candidate is likely to get voted in to a local ward. This could be a nasty, dingy corner of local politics. The second group we spoke to insisted that their role is not political, by which they mean, it's not characterised by party politics. But it's profoundly, inescapably political: these are unpaid volunteers living among people whose neighbourhood they 'represent' - often anonymously because of fears of reprisals - without democratic process or accountability but with the essential task of standing at the interface of citizen-as-subject and state-as-provider. Every call they make to environment or housing services, every conversation they are having with the police support officer, perhaps every time they step outside and have a word with a neighbour, they're trying to reassert the citizen's influence over what happens, and juggling the fizzing firesticks of responsibility, responsiveness, interference, surveillance, vigilantism, identity, collective interest and so on. They do this from a base of controlled influence and minimal power. We'll be going back for several more sessions, but (partly because they've not had much press for a long time) I'm already concerned that the street reps movement may not be in blooming good health. I see it as an important experiment, as much about new forms of engaged democracy as about making services locally responsive; as much about co-delivery as about efficiency. But it's...

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