Citizen & community empowerment doesn’t happen by accident!

Is what you’re doing empowering or disempowering?

To what extent is what you’re doing empowering — in principle and in practice?

A year ago, OECD invited comments on its ‘Good Practice Principles for Deliberative Processes for Public Decision Making’. I replied by highlighting that Empowerment was missing from that list of guiding principles. It’s still missing — it didn’t make it into the final version published in OECD’s ‘Deliberative Wave’ report — and I’ll say more on this later in this piece. But let’s first be clear on why empowerment is so crucial.

One of the key principles underpinning participative democracy, if not the key principle, is empowerment. I would hope that even advocates for narrower forms of deliberative democracy would still see empowerment as crucial.

Whether at the macro level in addressing complex issues like climate change or at the micro level in tackling whatever challenges any individual faces in their life, empowerment is essential for effective, lasting, positive outcomes.

We involve people in decisions that affect their lives because they have the right to be involved, because we know that involvement = commitment and is a key component of any change process, and we want to empower people, especially those who don’t usually have a voice and usually have little or no influence over the factors that shape their lives. We want people to be able to shape agendas, influence decisions, and shape their future.

I raised this point many times in my articles, posts, talks and workshops in 2020. Thankfully, on most occasions, it was acknowledged and supported. Increasingly, people have the ‘will’ in wanting to involve citizens and communities in shaping their future.

Indeed, it’s been the underlying trend for several decades, at both macro and micro levels, as I featured in this article in 2020:

Most questions I’m asked these days are around the ‘way’, ie how to involve and empower citizens and communities. Once the will is there, it’s easy to find ways to achieve the goal.

There are many ways we can involve and empower people, we’re devising new approaches or adaptations all the time, and — if we truly do have the will — we’ll continue to innovate and develop new approaches, tailored to the needs of the citizens and communities we’re working with, not imposing methodologies or having method-led approaches, or trying to have a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

My own practice in the field of citizen & community involvement and empowerment was very much shaped by my experience in York 1989–91 — a hotbed of innovation in deliberative & participative democracy and community empowerment — which I wrote up and published in this piece last year:

City of York Council had made a commitment to community empowerment in 1986, steps had already been taken towards participative democracy before I arrived on the scene, and approaches like ‘participatory budgeting’ (citizens shaping budget allocation across the entire city, plus devolved budgets with local communities deciding how the resources were spent) were underway.

I shared the philosophy and threw myself into applying it in practice — first in York, and then in many other councils across the UK, including the pioneering participatory budgeting work we carried out with councils such as Bromley, Colchester and Swindon.

There’s been a gradual evolution towards greater participative democracy over the past 35 years, with a few spurts and backlashes, albeit with still too many cases of non-involvement, sham ‘consultations’, command & control leadership, and non-empowering approaches.

It’s very much a ‘work in progress’ but there are many community researchers, community engagement practitioners, and good-hearted people out there keeping the trend moving forward. Back in the late 1980s, community engagement practitioners were quite rare. Now there are thousands of them around the world doing great work every day.

Also over the past 35 years, I’ve witnessed a gradual evolution of ‘deliberative democracy’ advocates and practitioners. Many academics, think tanks, and practitioners have kept the torch burning for deliberative processes within our political systems, and the use of deliberative forums involving local communities and key stakeholder groups, and — where appropriate — deliberative mini-publics among cross-sections of citizens.

In the past 2 years, we’ve had an explosion in advocacy and practice under the banner of ‘deliberative democracy’, including what has been dubbed the ‘Deliberative Wave’. Some of this has been helpful in furthering the cause of citizen involvement and empowerment. Some less so. Some even harmful, as I’ve written about in other articles and blogs in 2020.

It seems that there are some advocates and practitioners of ‘deliberative democracy’ who also believe in participative democracy — width of participation and participatory rights, not just depth of involvement among small, selected samples — and some whose idea of ‘deliberative democracy’ is much more narrow, even arguing that the ‘representative’ properties of deliberative mini-publics means that wider, more inclusive, participation is not necessary.

It’s useful to map initiatives and projects on a simple matrix of participation and deliberation. Some are high participation high deliberation, but others have compromised. Sometimes, in terms of allocation of budget, (depth of) deliberation has been at the expense of (width of) participation.

If you’re not aiming for BOTH high participation AND high deliberation — aiming for a healthy wide and deep democracy — are you conscious of what you’re compromising on, and why?

We can also map projects and initiatives on a spectrum of empowerment — from high empowerment to low empowerment, or disempowerment.

To what extent is what you’re doing empowering — in principle and in practice?

In the early part of my career, I carried out a lot of research and community engagement projects that were well-intentioned but, on reflection, not really empowering. A lot of them gathered genuine insights into the experiences of those living in poverty, living in disadvantaged communities, living in run-down public housing estates, etc and fed those insights into relevant policy processes but it was simply data input into top-down power processes.

With experience, I learned to involve citizens, communities and relevant stakeholders in ways that empowered them, shaping agendas and designs, building capacity, co-producing solutions, facilitating ongoing engagement and continuous conversations — often over 12 months, sometimes several years (especially community regeneration)— not just ad hoc exercises.

It’s hard work, it needs complete commitment in principle, and a lot of practice. It doesn’t happen by chance!

When OECD put out a document for public consultation in 2020, which it said would establish a set of principles to guide public deliberations, I immediately, instinctively thought ‘Empowerment’ must be one of those principles, so was surprised it was missing from the list.

Again, after reflection, I believed passionately that Empowerment must be one of those principles.

So I responded formally via OECD’s consultation process, and also published my comments, arguing publicly and widely — including trying to make sure OECD and the report’s authors were aware —that Empowerment was missing from the list of Good Practice Principles and should be added.

It was with deep sadness, that OECD did not take on board this, in good faith, recommendation. Indeed, it was not even acknowledged and then became a source of some hostility. I probably contributed to this as I became angry that my case for Empowerment being one of the Good Practice Principles was being ignored, but I hoped that someone would eventually acknowledge the crucial importance of Empowerment and include it in the Principles.

I never had any formal acknowledgement or feedback from OECD, and I criticised its process which seemed to be far from ‘good practice’. I just had two ‘unofficial’ exchanges via Twitter.

One reply said “these Good Practice Principles were drafted by a panel of experts” (implying that these ‘experts’ must be ‘right’, and the ‘public consultation’ was not expecting anyone to fundamentally challenge just help them fine-tune?).

Another reply said “empowerment is implicit in all the principles” to which I replied “if it isn’t explicit, it doesn’t happen”, which has been my experience.

A year on, I feel even more strongly than I did 12 months ago that Empowerment should be one of the key principles guiding the design and implementation of any public deliberation or participative democracy initiative. I’ve raised it in many forums and at many events over the past year.

It’s just started to be acknowledged, eg by Professor Graham Smith at two recent events I attended, most recently Graham talking about his new book where he said Empowerment features as a key principle.

The past 12 months has seen a mix of empowering, non-empowering, and disempowering designs for engaging with and involving citizens and communities. Empowerment doesn’t happen by accident, but by design.

Contrast these two approaches to a Citizens’ Assembly (CA) centred model for example…

One CA is ‘commissioned’ by government or parliament. It has a very specific question to explore a specific topic, which is non-negotiable, eg how to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The process is tightly controlled and facilitated. It’s considered that there are lots of ‘experts’ for this topic and the design is based around (uninformed) citizens being ‘educated’ by these ‘experts’. Only 100 citizens, selected to form a demographic and psychographic cross-section of the population, are involved with no other opportunities for other citizens to participate. The CA Members cannot choose which ‘experts’ they hear from. They deliberate, form a view on policy actions required, and write their report, with assistance from the facilitators. Their report is presented to government/parliament and their involvement concludes. They wait to see what government/parliament decides.

Not a high degree of empowerment there, and some aspects are clearly disempowering.

Another CA centred process is initiated by citizens themselves after a petition or ‘qualified voting’ process. There is a two-stage process where the Assembly Members themselves shape the agenda of issues they want to cover, then how they will cover them, including deciding on the focused question(s) they will deliberate on, scope and ambition. The citizens co-facilitate with some experienced, non-directive facilitators. They choose which ‘experts’ they hear from and which other sources of information or presenters they hear from.

The citizens say they don’t just want this to be a top-down process or one-off engagement which then goes back into a top-down policy process, and they don’t want this to be an exclusive process with just 100 citizens involved, so they decide to broaden the involvement and find ways to involve more citizens and communities in the process, including having input, making submissions, giving evidence, observing online throughout with comments, being involved in parallel online forums, commenting on the CA’s draft report…

There are a mix of facilitated and non-facilitated sessions. At crucial points, including agreeing conclusions, sessions include citizens themselves without facilitation, unless requested. Citizens write the report, with requested editing or admin support. CA Members personally deliver their recommendations to a range of decision-makers where there are top-down policy proposals, and via a programme of community workshops where they have recommended behaviour change, direct action, and ground-up community initiatives — co-facilitated with local residents who were also involved in the wider engagement process integrated with the CA.

Scrutiny and monitoring groups and forums are set up with membership from CA core participants and others who have been involved in various ways to check on implementation of the recommendations, both top-down by policymakers and ground-up by citizens and communities.

Contrasting these two approaches to a Citizens’ Assembly centred model is a way of emphasising there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, and that even around the same basic model (even within the same basic model), the design and implementation can vary enormously in the extent to which it empowers citizens and communities (including direct core participants), or not!

In some of my work over the past 35 years for national governments and some councils, I’ve found it hard to encourage my ‘client’ to approve and implement more empowering designs. They love to have control, they hold on to power, they don’t like to let go. They often have favoured ‘expert advisers’ they want to put forward. They like tightly-controlled, heavily-facilitated processes. They want processes specified in advance, as part of a contracted project, with agreed deadlines. They want to specify the questions, or at least scope and focus. And they want to receive the recommendations (sometimes they even find ‘recommendations’ threatening!) which they can pick and choose from.

Many of us would love to fundamentally change this culture and structure for a healthier deliberative & participative democracy. That’s the long-term vision and it’s a work-in-progress. At the very least though, we should be doing everything in our power to maximise empowerment in our designs and approaches. If we’re not trying to do this at every stage on every ‘project’ or initiative, we won’t be moving towards our long-term vision.

Happily, I’ve also been involved in many ground-up community involvement, co-creation and co-production projects and initiatives (some described in the previously referenced articles), where there have been high levels of empowerment, and where we were striving for maximum empowerment in every part and phase of the design and implementation.

My current work in fields such as digital inclusion and suicide prevention are very much empowerment centred.

We have a choice in terms of complaining about ‘digital exclusion’ and telling government to do something about the problem or working with governments, communities, charities, employers, etc…and actually doing something about ‘digital inclusion’.

There have been many fantastic projects and initiatives across the UK since the first Lockdown, including the partnership efforts in my own home city to get donations of devices to those most in need and build networks of training and peer support.

The field of suicide prevention is a particularly fascinating one, for many reasons. Top-down policy approaches have had very limited success, and often suffer from institutional low ambition, with the government’s ‘expert advisers’ complicit in strategies that limit ambition to the standard “10% reduction in deaths by suicide in the next 5 years”.

Meanwhile, many smaller charities and local community groups are working with people who have lived experience of suicide with the higher ambition of achieving zero deaths or moving towards zero deaths via transformational change initiatives. Here, empowerment is literally a matter of life and death.

At a recent event on deliberative democracy and citizen engagement, I raised the question of empowerment with the esteemed panel of speakers. Their responses included ‘yes, it’s something we should consider more’ and ‘it’s something that’s not really been defined as yet’. Not inspiring is it?!

Let’s make empowerment an explicit goal. Let’s make empowerment an explicit principle and use it to guide all our work. By all means, let’s debate the macro perspective on what we think empowerment is and what we want to achieve, eg in terms of ‘giving a voice to those who don’t have a voice’ but…

…meanwhile, a good rule is to keep asking yourself: ‘To what extent is what we’re doing — what we’re designing and implementing — empowering or not empowering?’. And if it’s disempowering, why are you conspiring?!

Paul Vittles has been an advocate, practitioner, and pioneer in the field of citizen and community involvement and empowerment for 35 years. He continues to practice in 2021 with a focus on transformational, ground-up change initiatives and co-creation.

Researcher (FMRS), marketer (FAMI), consultant, coach & counsellor who helps people and organisations with transformational change and sustainable success.