Disconnected Citizens

The Social Market Foundation has recently published a report, Disconnected Citizens: Is Community Empowerment the Solution? by Senior Research Fellow Jessica Prendergrast.

This report discusses how community empowerment and the participatory mechanisms which make it up, are seen as a panacea for many social problems - reducing crime, improving public health, creating cohesive communities and undoing disengagement with formal political processes.

The publication argues that while the value of community empowerment measures are now seen as almost untouchable there is little concrete evidence to prove they are actually effective. Despite the rise in participatory opportunities people do not feel more connected to formal politics nor think they have more influence in decision making.

The author suggests that there is a mismatch between the Government’s aim to re-invigorate local democracy and the community empowerment mechanisms it hopes will provide the solution.

A number of reasons are suggested for this, for instance a false dichotomy between representative and participatory democracy and a failure of initiatives to transfer power in a meaningful way – and all in the context of citizens with less time and willingness to participate as well as an ill defined concept of community empowerment.

This report illustrates how recent government reports, policy initiatives and (then forthcoming) community empowerment white paper have focused on the reinvigoration of local democracy and the relationship between state and citizen through increased citizen participation and empowerment. The overriding agenda - to provide a solution to people’s disengagement from democratic politics. (For further information and discussion on this white paper have a look at the blog from Dhara, Policy Officer at NCVO. Her post also includes a link to NCVO’s response to this white paper).

Questions are raised about how realistic the proposed solutions within this agenda really are – for instance that there is evidence people are not in fact apathetic and disengaged – they just don’t trust nor like politicians.

The author suggests that by giving parish and town councils a specific and meaningful role as the participatory arm of local government they could become the bedrock of empowered communities and a reinvigorated local democracy – this would give Government a better solution to match its ambitions.

The author provides a very interesting and comprehensive list of recommendations for local and central government to revitalise democracy. One of these being:

  • Promote the widespread creation of community councils as the focus for local empowerment and participation.

Perhaps have a look at these recommendations on page 34.

In what ways might they impact on your organisation and the ways in which it engages with beneficiaries?

Do you have any suggestions for improving the definition of community empowerment that could support clarity within the VCS as a whole?

Last updated at 16:17 Wed 12/Aug/09.
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