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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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4.2 Real-world examples

The ladder of participation provides a theoretical framework but some real-world examples are needed. The following activities will help you to experience and understand some of these.

Activity 7 Empowerment in practice

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

The following is a list of practices and arrangements that can all be seen as empowering individuals or groups in one way or another. Consider these practices and note one or two concerns you might have about each one.

  1. The introduction of service users onto the management committee in an arts organisation for disabled people.
  2. The production of a set of service standards that any service user can expect of the organisation and a means of redress if these standards are not achieved.
  3. A campaign to improve the conditions and rights of people in prison.
  4. Involving young people on interview panels for staff in a children’s charity.
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Your answers will depend on your understanding of what empowerment is.

  1. A concern might be the extent to which this is a true empowerment – that control of resources and power by service users is real rather than apparent. Also, to what extent can a few service users represent or reflect the views of all service users?
  2. This should clarify what is expected of staff as well. One view could be that this is more of a formal contract relationship than a form of empowerment. Also, who defines the standards and do service users have an input into the process?
  3. This appears to empower (depending on the amount of input by prisoners and their families) but requires a major effort and campaign to influence change.
  4. This would not always be appropriate but has been used with some success in schools and would be empowering for young people to have that degree of involvement in decision making.

Activity 8 An empowering example

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Read Polly Mehta’s experience [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , from The Guardian website (2014), of being empowered by This organisation helps people with multiple sclerosis (MS) talk to experts. (Tip: open the article in a new tab or window by holding Ctrl [or cmd on a Mac] when you click the link.)

Make notes on:

  • how Polly felt empowered and why
  • how this approach compares with an organisation you are familiar with.
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Polly clearly found the process very positive. She found she was more proactive and less of a passive recipient of information. She felt less of a victim. She also praised the organisation for opening itself up to interaction with its service users and ‘handing back power’.

You probably have various examples of how service users and other beneficiaries are involved in your organisation. For example, perhaps your organisation identified a need for greater understanding about how one part of your service worked so you consulted service users or beneficiaries; or your organisation wanted to change a service and it was considered crucial to ask service users how this would affect them.

A key issue to consider: empowerment is a process as well as an outcome. For example, you can introduce a means by which service users are consulted or invited to participate in meetings but that does not mean they have been empowered. For this to happen, service users may need to build confidence and skills in order to engage with the organisation effectively. The organisation needs to take notice of what the service users say and demonstrate that they have acted on their input or explain why they have not.

Achieving empowerment is not always plain sailing: there can be barriers and resistance. Some people may respond to the issues raised this week by saying: ‘but they don’t want to be empowered’. The danger with such a response is that it saves us examining our own fears and anxieties about intervening and seeking to change relationships towards empowerment.

Activity 9 Barriers

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Read the short example below and list what you feel might be the barriers to empowerment in this situation:

A day centre for single homeless people introduced consultation meetings for service users and staff. It was six months before the meetings became regularly attended by service users.

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The service users probably first had to develop trust that staff would listen, respond to and, where possible, implement their suggestions. People often expect ‘tokenism’ when power is ‘given away’. Service users had to find out that staff were really open to influence. However, some service users may have felt they did not have the confidence, expertise, skills or time to participate. Some may also have not been interested. Investing resources in developing volunteers’ capacity to participate is extremely important if empowerment is to work.

Wider issues about resistance may include:

  • Previous experience where empowerment has been a ruse by which people have been asked to take on more work and responsibility with no extra support or reward.
  • There might be a difference between the management team’s and an individual’s views about the goals of the organisation.
  • The empowerment on offer might be seen as tokenism. People may recognise the limitations of empowerment on the basis of increased representation and may choose not to collaborate in something that they perceive has little real effect on the way power is exercised. It may take time for people to recognise that an empowerment initiative is genuine. People need support, training, help and reassurance if they are going to be able to take and use power effectively.
  • For some people, the issue they are being asked about may not be important or they may not have time to be involved. It is not possible to participate in everything.