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July 10, 2009

Future of Community Empowerment

Several commentators are now suggesting that the Community Empowerment agenda will gather momentum in the UK not from the commitment to renew democracy – but because we’re running out of money. The present level of public services can only be maintained if the task of managing society is shared between people and govt. Excellent piece by Gabriel Chanan in New Start

Hazel Blears had hardly packed her bags before her community empowerment legacy at DCLG was being questioned. Some commentators say the programme hasn’t been radical enough, others that it should be sidelined. What’s the reality, and what’s its potential?

The empowerment programme is a relatively small part of John Denham’s new ministerial portfolio but the ‘e’ word runs right across government. The problem is that it has almost run away with itself, popping up in documents from the Treasury, the Cabinet Office, the Department of Health (and in opposition statements) with no proper coordination by the programme specifically dedicated to it.

Health, education, justice, even housing and planning in DCLG itself, all have their own versions  of community involvement or engagement. These generally attack the issue from the top down, seeking to draw people into the agencies’ systems. But trying to induce participation without supporting internal community strengths is a short circuit that cuts off the energy it relies on.

The empowerment issue won’t go away (though labels may change) because at root it’s about the whole relationship between government and people. It’s also about making the public services affordable and effective under increasing demographic and economic pressure. The NHS needs to involve ‘patients and public’ not just as a principle or customer relations exercise but because in the long run there is no way the state can cope with the health problems of a long-lived population unless people take greater responsibility for their own wellbeing.

Less visibly, the same applies to all other services. The social and economic costs generated by crime, unemployment, ignorance, environmental damage will all outrun the managing capacity of the state unless they are also ameliorated directly by people. The community empowerment programme is the nearest thing in government policy to a strategy to share the task of managing society between people and government – it was originally called Together We Can. But it has also faltered in this vision, and become overly focused on the single aim of influencing public services, losing sight of the fact that people’s feelings of influence are the product of a cluster of activity which includes cohesion, volunteering, sense of belonging, social networks and community organisation, and that these objectives need to be pursued in the round.

Particular strengths of the programme are, firstly, that it has created a set of mechanisms for transmitting more power to local residents; and secondly, that it supports a delivery chain through national networks, regional champions and local community workers – who in practice are carrying much of the social capital, community cohesion and strengthening third sector agendas as well.

But its programmes are small¬ scale, while the measure of success is across the whole local population. The sense of influence can only be widened by getting equivalent mechanisms into the policies and practices of the big departments and programmes. While the empowerment programme has channelled some support to local workers, these allies on the front line have been reduced because DCLG has allowed neighbourhood renewal to lapse and has neglected to press other programmes to invest in community workers with an in-depth remit.

So where to now? The community empowerment programme should be sustained but mechanisms should be refined to ensure that they cascade the sense of ownership and influence out from those directly involved to wider and wider circles. New energy should be put into getting the full cluster of empowerment criteria (influence, social capital, volunteering, strong community sector) into the mainstream policies and guidance of other government programmes. And methods should be devised to get front line workers to respond positively to the spontaneous attempts of local people to exert influence, not just through special mechanisms and initiatives but through their day to day interaction with teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and police, and link this with the Treasury’s agenda to ’empower the front line workforce’.