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Community Empowerment Misunderstood? The Role of Enterprise…


First let’s look at some definitions of community empowerment:

‘Community Empowerment’ is the giving of confidence, skills and power to communities to shape and influence what public bodies do for or with them.

An Action Plan for Community Empowerment: Building on Success – October 2007

Community Empowerment is about people and government, working together to make life better.  It involves more people being able to influence decisions about their communities, and more people taking responsibility for tackling local problems, rather than expecting others to.

The idea is that government can’t solve everything by itself, and nor can the community: it’s better when we work together.

The Scarman Trust Forum Lecture by David Blunkett – December 2004

Helping citizens and communities to acquire the confidence, skills and power to enable them to shape and influence their local place and services, alongside providing support to national and local government agencies to develop, promote and deliver effective engagement and empowerment opportunities.

David Rossington, Director, Local Democracy and Empowerment Directorate, Department for Communities and Local Government

Community empowerment is the process of enabling people to shape and choose the services they use on a personal basis, so that they can influence the way those services are delivered. It is often used in the same context as community engagement, which refers to the practical techniques of involving local people in local decisions and especially reaching out to those who feel distanced from public decisions.

Communities and Local Government Website – August 2008

So it is about giving individuals and communities confidence, skills and power.  But to do what?

…to shape and influence what public bodies do for or with them…

…to influence decisions about their communities…

…taking responsibility for tackling local problems, rather than expecting others to…

…to shape and influence their local place and services…

…providing support to national and local government agencies to develop, promote and deliver effective engagement and empowerment opportunities…

…to shape and choose the services they use on a personal basis, so that they can influence the way those services are delivered…

One of the first lessons that we have to learn is that if we can empower people it is follow their own agendato pursue their own self interest.

Not to engage in the government’s agenda or the reform of public services, or local decision making.

I don’t know too many people who are champing at the bit to ‘shape public services’ and to ‘influence local decisions’.  Self interest, if defined at all, is rarely defined in these terms.

If we really want to empower communities (rather than just tap into them for ideas to save a few quid) then we have to start from a very different premise.  And I would argue that it is a premise that puts the individual first.  We have to use informal education processes to make the pursuit of self interest and power both legitimate and effective.

‘Community’ is a by-product of individuals actively pursuing their own self interest with power and confidence.  Such ‘enterprising’ people quickly realise that there is  power in association.  That negotiation matters.  That learning how to help and be helped are critical to making progress.  That shaping infrastructure and the environment matter – because they influence the extent to which any of us can pursue our self interest.  Without good schools, transport and housing how are we to pursue our interests?

So the starting point needs to be not ’empowering communities’ but empowering individuals.   And this is done by helping them to clarify and refine what is in their best self interest – not the community’s or the government’s or anyone else’s. Self interest needs to be properly negotiated with the self interests of others.  It should not be confused with selfishness.

And in parallel to the development of self interest there have to be systems to help people to develop their power to pursue it.  Processes to build confidence, skills and the ability to organise people and resources to make real progress.

So let’s worry less about empowering communities and more about helping individuals to clarify and pursue their own self interest with power and vigour.

Let’s invest time and money in helping individuals learn how to negotiate their self interest in the modern world.

Let’s invest in person centred processes of informal education.

Let’s re-shape formal education to focus more on helping people to become effective negotiators of their own self interest –  rather than passive consumers of a curriculum.

And as a by-product we will develop much healthier, more harmonious and politically engaged communities.

Why not….

Hat tip to Julian Dobson’s post ‘The Great Community Empowerment Heist
which planted the seeds….

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  1. June 3, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Thanks for the hat-tip, and a good post. I think it’s worth exploring a bit more the interface between self-interest and collective interest, and this week’s review of the evidence on empowerment, though limited, is quite helpful.

    Of course Hazel Blears’ resignation this morning puts a new gloss on the argument – I’ve posted some thoughts here: http://livingwithrats.blogspot.com/2009/06/wipe-that-tear-hazel-dear-from-your-eye.html
    P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

  2. June 3, 2009 at 11:54 am

    Cheers Julian.

    I agree further exploration would make a lot of sense. Any suggestions for a mechanism?

    I read your Blears resignation piece with interest. I think that she might be an excellent case of failing to negotiate her own self interest with the interests of others. She simply had to compromise too much in order to attain the power she sought. Reminds me of that Blair line about spending a lifetime to get your hands on the levers of power – only to find out that there aren’t any!

    I am just about to review the empowerment evidence. As far as I can see little if any of it takes the ideas of self interest and power seriously.

    It is just too scary for most policy makers to consider….

  3. June 4, 2009 at 6:46 am

    Hi Mike

    This was a refreshing read! The Armley Tourist Board is a tongue in cheek venture, with a bit of passion underneath it, but started very much as a personal blog and a desire to show the people of our street photographs taken during the very first street party we threw in 2005. We threw a street party because the summer was hot, and our neighbours seemed cool! From there hatchets were buried, and people wanted more. So we did more. From Cake Competitions to calendars, to festival volunteering and winning friendliest street in Britain. Most of this started out of me, or a small group of us wanting to have a bit of fun, and reach out to others with the same aim.
    Since then I have become aware that some people see this as a model of sorts.
    I have learnt a lot about technology, communities and perceptions as a result of a quite personal activity, and feel embarrassed when politicos etc try to see a model in what we have done, as if we started out with an agenda and followed a blueprint
    Anyway, empowerment has come about, but not because we wanted/expected or thought about it in advance.
    Over and out!

    • June 4, 2009 at 7:05 am

      A wonderful example of pursuit of self interest leading to community development. Just imagine if lots of others were being encouraged and supported to do the same and then carefully and systematically connected to build social capital….

  4. June 4, 2009 at 7:23 am

    This is something I think about a lot right now, especially as we are taking what we learnt (2 Armley birds) and applying the principals to Leeds with theculturevulture.co.uk
    My thinking is that it’s a case of setting your stool out quite publically about what you think is great (not interested in moaning) and being a little aspirational for your community (what ever you decide that community is) and seeing who emerges out of the woodwork with similar views
    theculturevulture and the touristboard are both growing works in progress which we wish to organically empower people to speak out about their passions. in the case of Armley its about all the flotsom and jetsom of life and in theculturevulture its about the rich diversity and broad church of cultural interests people have in Leeds/Bradford and beyond

  5. June 5, 2009 at 7:10 am

    I am sure you are facing interesting challenges around scale, accessibility and visibility in going City wide – but this sounds like a wonderful piece of work.

    I love your phrase ‘being a little aspirational for your community’, although I am not sure what it means in practical terms. Helping people to dare to dream – that I can get….and once they start dreaming and acting then connection/community becomes inevitable….

    My challenge is that there are so many for whom ‘learned helplessness’ has become the default. They are essentially dependent on bureacracies rather than autonomous…

    We must compare notes, experiences and ambitions….

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