Localism and community empowerment have become very popular ideas across the UK, and indeed internationally, when thinking about how to design and deliver public services. However, the localism agenda has been tackled very differently in Scotland compared to the Rest of UK (RUK). In particular it’s important to note that the community empowerment agenda in Scotland maintains a commitment to tackling inequalities – which the RUK agenda does not.
This agenda in Scotland is founded upon the assertion that,
Scotland’s communities are a rich source of talent and creative potential and the process of community empowerment helps to unlock that potential. It stimulates and harnesses the energy of local people to come up with creative and successful solutions to local challenges. (Scottish Government, 2009, p. 6)
In this underpinning logic, in the commitment to tackling inequalities, and in many other respects this seems to be a laudable policy as discussed elsewhere (see Lawson and Kearns, 2010).
What hadn’t, until now, been explored in any great depth is the extent to which local communities are aware, prepared and willing to engage in the opportunities that might arise through the community empowerment agenda. This research draws on 61 semi-structured interviews with MSPs, MPs, local and community councillors, Audit Scotland officers, public service managers and local residents and activists in a single ward in East Scotland. The findings uncovered three factors that must be in place for community empowerment to be effective: 1) shared strategy; 2) shared resources; and 3) shared accountability.
1. Shared strategy
There was a sense within the community that they had been largely forgotten. It was strongly felt that local residents could not influence decision-making and, even if they could, it wouldn’t make any difference. Even elected politicians recognised that there was little by way of social progress and that any investment that was going into communities was largely maintaining the status quo rather than leading to any positive change.
As such community empowerment might help alleviate some of these problems by devolving more decision-making and enhancing collaboration between communities, community group, local government officials and elected politicians. But this also requires certain skills and expertise in order to be effective. Thus a shared strategy is not enough – shared resources and shared accountability are also required.
2. Shared resources
Many participants highlighted how the current system was one based on disempowerment and that resources were centralised and that there were major disparities between the resources of local councils and community groups. Whilst the community empowerment agenda does include opportunities for communities to take ownership of more resources there was also a fear from participants that this move to greater sharing of resources had only come about as the council were attempting to make significant service cuts and therefore this was motivated by offloading costs to communities rather than truly from a sense of empowerment.
3. Shared accountability
Much of the discussion highlighted a long-standing cynicism and mistrust of the local council by residents, activists and public service managers. It is notable that Scotland has one of the highest levels of centralised power in Europe (32 municipalities compared to 434, 98 and 342 in countries of a similar size – Norway, Denmark and Finland). Thus many participants expressed a significant lack of enthusiasm for community empowerment and indeed there was a questioning of the idea of ‘community’ at all. Largely, those from affluent parts of the community had little appetite for community empowerment as the system was seen to work well for them already, whilst those in less affluent parts of the community had little appetite for community empowerment due to a lack of trust.
Overall the research highlighted a wide range of problems within the current system: around the lack of representation; the lack of engagement with communities; the unequal distribution of resources; and a widespread lack of enthusiasm for greater community empowerment. The Community Empowerment agenda in Scotland represents a positive move towards tackling some of these long-standing problems within the current system. Yet without systemic investment in a shared strategy, shared resources and shared accountability mechanisms the potential of this agenda is not likely to be seen.
This research was conducted with Violetta Fejszes and Mariola Tàrrega and has now been published in the International Journal of Public Services Management. The article can be downloaded for FREE up to 50 times via this link: https://www.emeraldinsight.com/eprint/YIXHQUNF6XVXCPNRVQXI/full
When free downloads are no longer available it will also be available here: https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/IJPSM-03-2018-0080