Community empowerment is a defining agenda of the Brown Government, and likely to feature heavily in the manifestos of all the three main parties at the next election. The Communities and Local Government White Paper on the same topic, which is due for launch in July 2008, is therefore eagerly anticipated, by the local government community at least. In this context, this essay discusses how, despite community empowerment being presented as a panacea for many social ills, the evidence in relation to some outcomes is relatively patchy.
The dramatic rise in participatory opportunities of recent years has not been accompanied by an improvement in people’s sense of connection to formal politics. Nor do people feel more empowered to influence decisions. The author asks whether there is a mismatch between the Government’s ambition to reinvigorate local democracy, and its proposition that participatory empowerment mechanisms can provide the solution.
A number of explanatory factors are explored, including: the evolution of a false dichotomy between representative and participatory democracy; a failure of initiatives to transfer power in a meaningful sense and; a lack of clarity and transparency in lines of accountability for decision-making. This essay considers the implications of these issues in designing a model of empowerment which can reinvigorate democracy.