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Engaging citizens in economic recovery

May 8, 2009

At LGiU we believe that empowering local people leads to stronger democracy and more effective governance. Of course we’re not alone in this: empowerment is central to how all the major parties think about local democracy and forms a major part of the current public policy landscape.

But as the economy struggles towards recovery and public finances grow ever tighter, there’s a danger that empowerment will fall by the wayside as councils struggle with the immediate addressing task of helping communities cope with recession.

We believe that would be a mistake: that empowerment is not an expensive luxury but a vital tool for responding to tough economic times. Indeed as public finances grow tighter, we’d argue that citizen empowerment is the only hope for effectively delivering the services people need.

That’s why we were delighted to co-host a workshop this week with our friends from Involve looking at how to treat empowerment and the economy as a single agenda.

Hazel Blears kicked the event off. She gave three reasons why she thought empowerment was crucial in a downturn:

  • It creates efficiencies: asking people what they want helps you deliver better services and get them right first time
  • The anxieties created by economic difficulty can be exploited to create tension between different groups in society. Empowerment brings people together and helps promote community cohesion.
  • Recovery will be strongest in places with high levels of social capital and the empowerment agenda helps build up this social capital.

As interesting as Hazel’s speech was, for me the really good part of the day started where she left off. Participants worked in a world café style to talk about the challenges and opportunities offered by the empowerment agenda and how this was impacted by the recession.

The conversation was fast and furious and I won’t even attempt to summarise it properly here.

We’re working with Involve to write it all up in a report for CLG, but for me some of the key things I took away to think about were:

  • The level of consensus and excitement about bringing the two agenda together.
  • That empowerment cannot just be about giving citizens more sophisticated way to make demands on authorities that raise expectations that cannot be delivered in an era of tight public finances.
  • That we need to develop much richer conversations between councils and communities and within communities about roles and responsibilities.
  • That local authorities need to be able to think radically about what services they deliver and how and that citizens need to engage with this thinking.

As always more questions were identified than solutions, but the dominant mood seemed to be determination to work through these difficult issues and a challenge to CLG to give the space and support they need to do so.

That will certainly be part of the message that we send back to them in our write up.

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