What is power and who should have it?

I was recently invited to give a presentation on what power is, and who should have it. This a write up of my notes.

What is power?

Traditionally power would be seen as rather hierarchical, exclusive or elitist. The word has a binary dimension; to be powerful is not to be powerless.

But this is just one example of what power is. Today politicians, employers and academics talk about the benefits of empowerment.

Who do they think should be empowered? Frontline workers such as social workers or nurses should be more empowered, because when they are, production tends to be increased, they have a sense of ownership over their role, they tend to stay in the role for longer, ensuring consistency, while it promotes mental wellbeing.

On this, there are many crossovers between the political left and right today. The link between sense of purpose through ownership and empowerment can be seen as important from the right, in say the think-tank Respublica, to the centre and liberal left, from The Work Foundation to Compass.

On the question of whether empowerment is beneficial is almost a subject of political consensus.

Who else should feel empowered? Citizens need to feel empowered; at a local level citizens need to feel their voice is being heard on issues that directly relate to them. They need to feel consulted with on relatively minor things like on an installation of a new park bench, to something larger such as the planning permission of a block of flats.

The same goes for citizens at a national level; voices need to be heard via referendum, be that for membership to the European Union through to the voting system. This is a radical cultural change; no decision should be too small at a local level, nor too big at a national one.

Though on the question of power, is it something to be bestowed upon the people from the top, or is it something that can be created by the people themselves? Is empowerment top down or bottom up? The freedom of information act is a good example of where government has acted and allowed citizens to gain access to information we once had no right to. Is that empowerment? In a way this knowledge is empowering, but it’s nothing if we just leave it there. Empowerment comes from what we do with that information, and how we use it to instigate change.

What is citizen empowerment?

So if this is what empowerment is in general, what is citizen empowerment specifically? It’s about having input into decision making. In 2006, when David Miliband was Minister for Local Government, he talked about the “double devolution of power” from Whitehall to the town hall, from the town hall to the neighbourhood. Today more than ever, we have the ability to take that a stage further – the triple devolution of power – from Whitehall, to the town hall, then to the neighbourhood to our online communities. Already the internet has created a space for citizens to be more powerful.

The reason for this is that the internet can harness unique forms of social contact; it’s now the task of people, politicians and organisations to promote this social contact as a way to influence change at both local and national levels.

In a Demos report published in 2006 entitled “Talk us into it: putting conversation at the heart of public realm,” Samuel Jones discusses two interesting statistics; the first being the English average for how many people an individual knows in their street which is 14, whereas for Scotland that figure is 31. The second is the English average for how many people can name a local councillor which is 42, whereas for Scotland that figure is 59. The conclusion Jones has come to is there seems to be parity between knowing people in the local area and knowing who to influence in order to bring about change to that area.

The other conclusion is that the national average is quite low and could be higher, and if it were communities could be more empowered.

For this purpose, is the information highway empowering? Henry Jenkins in his book Convergence Culture, notes that the technological age could produce the “monitorial citizen” by which is meant one who becomes, not enlightened through mass information, but bombarded by conflicted versions of the truth. I take a different view; mass information seems to be far more deliberative in that it encourages people to discuss and work out solutions with a whole range of information. Jenkins’ citizen sounds rather robotic believing everything she or he reads; the reality is information promotes nuanced opinion.

Can social media be empowering? I think it already is – in a way which cannot be ignored. An example of this happened to me last Thursday. I was walking from work to go to Holborn, in Central London. I just happened to look at my twitter feed only to find a few messages explaining how there had been a bomb scare and that the police were evacuating the area. I wanted to know more so I looked at the BBC website where I found nothing. I checked the Guardian website where I found nothing. Typed “Holborn” into google news to find absolutely nothing. I switched back to twitter where now many people had started to retweet more information on Holborn, this time with pictures taken from mobile phones, being tweeted and re-tweeted to their followers and their followers’ followers.

Already citizen empowerment is undercutting the traditional ways in which we receive information.

Who should have power?

In short, the answer is anybody who is affected by the decisions, services and provisions in their local area. Advocates of citizen empowerment, such as Simon Burall and Jonathan Carr-West in a 2009 report for Involve and the Local Government Information Unit, cite evidence for it’s benefits as local knowledge improving local services. It also builds links between the community and the provider, thus increasing accountability – a particular political hot potato, rendered so not least by the recent expenses scandal.

In his paper entitled Democracy Pays: How democratic engagement can cut the cost of government, Anthony Zacharzewski makes the financial case that democratic engagement of citizens can improve transparency and the accountability of where tax money goes. This would inevitably counter waste and reduce the cost local councils spend on consultancy, instead opening up decision making to the neighbourhood.

Another popular reason given is that citizen empowerment would re-enfranchise the disillusioned (such as NEET – not in education, employment or training – young people). If those on the cusp of society felt their voice heard, and they participated to the betterment of their society in a considered and meaningful way, this would hopefully return otherwise alienated people back to the communities in which they belong.

The one overarching reason that people should have power in their local communities is because it is a widely accepted, and fundamentally necessary, principle of democracy. People should not only be able to participate in making decisions related to the things around them; they should be able to frame the very terms of those debates.

To this end, and in the spirit of the times, there should be a single online access point, where people, with their local councillors and MPs, can enjoy such power.

Thank you.