Tag Archives: austerity

Community Empowerment needs Community Investment

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 

 

 

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Something positive

I’m just back from the Social Policy Association conference in Belfast. It was a great conference with lots of very engaging speakers discussing their latest research. Topics included:

  • Economic and domestic violence
  • Food poverty
  • Young people, precarity and security
  • Pension inequality
  • Taxation and austerity

 

There was also a special session organised on ‘the consequences of Brexit’.

 

Some of the highlights for me included a plenary session by Kathryn Edin discussing her new book – ‘$2 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America‘ and a presentation by Lorenza Antonucci about her new book – ‘Student Lives in Crisis: Deepening inequality in times of austerity‘.

 

These are two great books that I would thoroughly recommend. I was going to write some more about both – but you can just buy the books. What’s more, I was trying to come up with something positive to write about following the conference. But, as you can probably guess from some of the topics listed above, this isn’t easy.

 

There is much to worry about. And I don’t want to diminish any of that in any way. Global recession, European disintegration, war, terrorism, rising inequality. Yes, it’s all there. But this is not the 1930’s. My dad was born in the 1930’s – and as I sit in a warm, well lit library drinking fresh Americano and type this blog on my notebook using the free Wi-Fi available I’m made all too aware of that. Yes, I do have a privileged position and others aren’t nearly so fortunate. But this still is not the 1930’s. There’s much to feel positive about despite all the worrying news.

 

And what can be done with worry anyway? I’m reminded of the Serenity Prayer. I’m not a religious person but I think there is an important message in this – especially in difficult times such as these:

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
the courage to change the things we can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

 

So let’s focus on the things we can change, embrace the opportunities that we have to make change happen, and celebrate the fact that we all can make a difference. Happy Monday!

 

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