From straw man to Wicker Man?


Annie Gunner Logan on the unintended consequences of community empowerment

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20th August 2019 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

Community empowerment. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? And it certainly can be.

Where community members have a strong shared ambition for ownership and control, and a clear vision of the benefits they’ll bring, the outcome can be absolutely inspirational. Community buyouts are probably the prime example.

But I am increasingly troubled by the way in which the concept of ‘the community’ is advanced as the answer to a whole host of challenges, especially those involving money.

I can’t help thinking that enthusiasm for community participation and empowerment, particularly among public officials, is growing in direct proportion to the speed at which their own spending power is diminished. Sure, community empowerment has always had strong and passionate advocates, even when there was plenty of money sloshing about. But now everyone’s getting in on the act, with rather more spurious objectives.

Where is the evidence, I hear you cry, for such an outrageous claim?

Well, there’s the strategy for social care published by a large (and cash-strapped) city council that said, in all seriousness, “families and communities need to do more.” Really?? That will come as a surprise to the 65,000 unpaid local family carers, I’m sure.

And then there are some very worrying tweets posted under the otherwise excellent and interesting #citizenshift hashtag. For example, before committing expenditure, officials are advised first to ask “are there enough volunteers that could get this done?”

Guys, guys: we’re talking about public services here. There’s a huge difference between inviting, encouraging, supporting and empowering people to increase the level of choice and control they have over local services, and seeking to palm off responsibility onto them as a primary policy objective. I haven’t forgotten the Big Society, even if you have.

Annie Gunner Logan

Annie Gunner Logan

I am increasingly troubled by the way in which the concept of ‘the community’ is advanced as the answer to a whole host of challenges

Another #citizenshift post laments the apathy of local residents for some or other community wheeze dreamt up by the council. “Feeling seemed to be taxes they pay should cover us doing this for them – filling in a survey was about as far as they’d go to help”.

Citizens, eh? Failing to put their shoulders to the wheel at the behest of well-paid officials looking for ways to save money. How very dare they?

Apparently we’re all too brainwashed by decades of municipal paternalism to be willing to take things into our own hands. We need ‘community leaders’ to step up, and run the show. But I worry that this is just paternalism 2.0 – the difference being that this time around, it’s not the council, but a series of groovy social policy think-tank wonks that know what’s best for us.

Confession time: my own experience of close community living was out of this world. In a rural French village of only 275 inhabitants, we had our very own mayor and ‘town hall’. Everyone knew your business; there was an epic, possibly centuries-old tradition of inter-household feuding and vengeance; we all mucked in at both low and high points; and every now and then someone would run over a sanglier in the dark and invite the whole village round.

That kind of set-up isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I learned a couple of things: one, keep in with the Big Man; and two, roadkill can be amazing when roasted with garlic.

The whole village was, in every sense, participatory and collaborative. But being in France, it still worked within a tightly-run democratic system whereby community leaders were elected, rather than self-appointed.

You want to see a truly empowered community? Go watch The Wicker Man.

Annie Gunner Logan has been working in and around the Scottish voluntary sector for longer than she cares to remember. Currently director of CCPS (Coalition of Care and Support Providers in Scotland) with various non-exec roles thrown in. @ccpscotland