‘No part of the public service will be untouched by this agenda’
You might be forgiven for missing her majesty’s key reference to the community empowerment/engagement agenda in this year’s Queen’s speech, referring as it did to the proposed 'Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill.'
With the economy and the media still reeling from the global banking crisis, precedence was understandably given to the proposed 'Banking Bill' and the assurance that the economy was the government’s ‘overriding priority"
The proposed Local Democracy Bill however represents a crucial move towards the entrenchment of the community engagement and empowerment agenda across all sectors of the public service.
The community empowerment agenda has been gradually gathering momentum, with support from the Communities and Local Government department (CLG), the Local Government Association (LGA), The Improvement and Development Agency (I&DeA), rural networks, community groups/charities and innovative councils.
Most notably perhaps is the observation that community empowerment is not just part of the New Labour agenda, but has the weight of political consensus behind it; with David Cameron stating ‘This is the future ... local councils being judged, held accountable, and evaluated by your residents’ (speech to the Conservative Councillors Association), and with the Liberal Democrats always supporting devolution, localism and ‘people power’.
Following on from the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health (LGPIH, 2007) Act, the Creating Strong, Safe and Prosperous Communities Statutory Guidance acknowledges that ‘..services will be improved and communities strengthened only if local people are effectively engaged and empowered’
The white paper, 'Communities in Control: Real people, real power' (2008), states that the central aim of community empowerment is to pass power into the hands of local communities, generating vibrant democracy and giving control over local decisions and services to a wider pool of active citizens.
The government’s commitment to the Empowerment Agenda and the potential scale of its impact is evidenced by the level of policy activity it has generated;
The last major White Paper (Communities in Control), and The (proposed) Local Democracy, Economic and Construction Bill outline a series of wide-ranging duties to be met by Local Authorities, including:
It is clear that the community empowerment agenda has wide reaching implications for local government partners, with the recognition that CAA will ensure that local public services will, for the first time, be collectively held to account for their impact on local outcomes.
Seen by many as the key driver to deliver the empowerment agenda, CAA will assess the implementation of the Duty to Involve, provide an assessment that includes a consideration of how the organisation engages local communities in financial planning, and presents as clear challenge to ‘managerialist’ councils.
A considerable challenge to the empowerment agenda may come from partner’s memories of previous initiatives, programmes and schemes that have had, at their core, some component of community engagement, consultation or empowerment.
Without naming and shaming such schemes, it is possible to identify a number of common factors that led to their often inevitable downfall, including poor planning and implementation, a lack of support and capacity building and limited opportunities for community partners to challenge ‘centralisation’ and influence.
However, lessons from the past only tell us so much, and key to making empowerment work will be the adoption of a ‘cultural shift’ in our thinking. To do this we have to recognise that with the right focus, capacity and skills, civil society is ideally placed to help support priorities and maximise opportunities for the shaping of genuinely sustainable communities.
As was intimated to at the beginning of this commentary, the economy is the governments overriding priority at present, and justifiably so. However, for those devising policy, developing strategies and managing difficult decisions at the local level, empowerment should not seen as an ‘add-on’ or ‘luxury’, with the ‘funding cloth’ and budgets cut accordingly. There is a strong case for empowerment in hard times, and this includes:
CFE have committed to undertaking work around the empowerment agenda, and are currently seeking to support national, regional and local partners through a variety of activities, including:
To learn more about Participatory Budgeting, the financial empowerment tool set to be introduced in all Local Authorities by 2012, please see CFE’s explanatory think piece on the subject, here.