Power to the people

Walk into any office or meeting today and you are likely to hear the word “empowerment” repeated mantra-like. However, if the concept is not fated to becoming an unfulfilled aspiration, we must really be clear about what it is we are trying to achieve.

The qualifications, training and language that so well equip a social care worker to fight the fight can seriously hamper a worker’s ability to empower service users. The very nature of social welfare work means that many of the service users we come into contact with struggle to “have a voice” and may have little idea of how to sort out the difficulties in their own lives.

They may be living with a range of staggeringly oppressive problems, the scale of which can often galvanise into action a professional’s “let me sort this out” type of behaviour. Further, some service users believe that professionals should sort things out for them, and have little sense of their own (untapped) capacity.

How utterly demoralising is it for services users to be treated as problems: problems are something people might have, not what people are. Things that inhibit empowerment such as rushed communication, lack of information, unclear boundaries and poor continuity of staff must be eliminated.

For managers this means helping staff to “unlearn” some of the unwritten messages that they have been busily imbibing throughout their training and ongoing development, namely, that they are the experts with diagnostic and problem-solving skills.

Yes, they should have highly developed analytical skills, but this needs to be applied in terms of helping service users to identify their own solutions to their problems, helping them to enact these, and telling social workers about the progress they have made.

Empowering service users is more than a trendy slogan in search of a purpose – the process and outcomes of empowering service users can have a massive impact on whether the stated intervention achieves what it has set out to achieve.

Process issues are important too: speaking in plain language, giving people time to absorb different pieces of information, putting things in writing, making advocacy services available, and ensuring people can ask questions without being made to feel stupid.

It means helping service users to differentiate between changes they have some control over and changes that are outside of their control, that they or others need to lobby for.

Empowering users does not mean telling them what you think is good for them and expecting them to agree that yes, you’re right, that is a marvellous idea. If you really want to empower users you first have to believe, yes really believe, that they are valuable, worthwhile and have an important contribution to make to whatever it is you are trying to achieve.

Empowering users can be hugely rewarding and satisfying. However, it can also feel a bit uncomfortable and risky. Hopefully users will feel sufficiently empowered to start taking some control for themselves. This might be the direction you wanted things to go in and so if you really want this then that’s great. Your role will then become to support as and when necessary.

The key component of ensuring users are “empowered” is to be ready to hear what they have to say and to look at the service from their perspective. In the long run, the more users are involved in services the easier it should be to provide them. We hate to think how much it costs to monitor services, and yet we have a whole army of service users out there who could so easily help us with this if we only asked them for help.

On the radio recently a story was broadcast of a lady aged 105 who lived in a residential care home. She had become worried about a story she had heard about an ecological threat from oil spills to the population of penguins on the Australian island of Tasmania.

She mobilised other residents in the home and between them they knitted loads of woolly jumpers for the penguins. The jumpers succeeded in stopping the birds preening themselves and swallowing the toxic oil, before their feathers get washed.

It was such a marvellous thing to do – and not only just from the older lady’s point of view – or the penguins’ come to that. But you realise that the home she lives in must have really actively supported her and her fellow residents. And she must have felt “empowered” to get the ball (of wool) rolling.

Empowerment must be set in a framework of rights and responsibilities. Providers must be clear what their service proposition is and what resources they have at their disposal to deliver it.

When I was…

… working in social care regulation, a lay assessor (a volunteer member of the public who accompanies inspectors on inspections of residential care homes) came to a meeting to comment on a particular home he had visited. He was less than complimentary about the provider, an independent sector organisation, with which the council was experiencing difficulties. A senior council manager kept saying how useful it was to have an independent, objective view. The lay assessor then turned to the limitations of the commissioner of the services – who also happened to be the same senior council manager. From then on the “independent, objective” lay assessor’s comments were considered by the senior council manager to be unhelpful and negative. Is empowering people only a good thing if they agree with you or your agency’s point of view? (Kathryn Stone)

Top tips

  • You have to mean it – otherwise it’s a pointless exercise in advanced tokenism.
  • Be clear why service users or others are being involved and what influence they can realistically expect.
  • Be prepared to hear exactly what you didn’t want to.

Rubbish tips

  • Call in the one person that you always use – they know how it all works so why bother with anyone else?
  • Play the game – organise an empowerment “initiative”, tick the box and carry on as before.
  • If users know best why did I need to get qualified?


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