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WORK LIFE - POWER TO THE PEOPLE

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Recently, it seems, government ministers have been talking sense. They have been discussing their plans to give mor...
Recently, it seems, government ministers have been talking sense. They have been discussing their plans to give more power to public service workers and local government decision-makers - all part of their strategy for transforming our hospitals, schools and other services.

As an idea, it certainly makes sense. Health workers, teachers and others engage with the users of their services on a daily basis. As a result, they are much better placed than ministers to come up with innovative strategies for improving the quality of people's lives.

Yet the promises being made by health secretary Alan Milburn and local government secretary Stephen Byers have been met with considerable scepticism. Few believe they can really let go of their urge to control the way things are run. These are, after all, the people who will be setting the targets, monitoring their delivery and imposing sanctions on those who fail to come up with the prescribed goods.

The alternative is for those on the front line to grab power for themselves. The main block to this is, after years of being told what to do and being bullied until they did it, many professionals are out of practice at empowering themselves.

What is needed to turn things around is a three-pronged strategy for rebuilding that capacity. This has to involve giving professionals more self-confidence, developing the voice of the public, and improving the quality of communication between elected officials and public service managers.

The first step is to give people the opportunity to develop faith in their own judgment. This was what Cheshire CC's education director David Cracknell decided to do after he realised the challenge of processing endless government initiatives had left his teachers feeling powerless. He set up meetings where they could explore ways of implementing government diktats while sticking with what they knew worked best for students. The result has been increased enthusiasm and creativity.

The second step is to give professionals the chance to demonstrate that the strategies being followed have the enthusiastic support of service users. This can only be achieved if the public is engaged in the deliberations about how to improve the services they use. Numerous experiments are going on to find out the most effective ways of doing this.

The Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust has discovered one consequence of giving patients more say in how their illnesses are treated is that they are coming up with useful ideas for improving the health system as a whole.

The third challenge for any empowerment strategy is to build up trust between professionals and politicians so, instead of blaming each other for what goes wrong, they start collaborating to make things better.

There are various available models which aim to bring together people from different sides of the fence. Victor Gallant, executive director of North Tyneside MBC, has tried several of them. He says not only have they helped to ensure much higher levels of joined-up thinking, they have changed his view of himself.

Ultimately, these empowerment processes only work if they have the capacity to raise levels of emotional literacy. By creating a climate of respect in which all parties can be heard, feel valued and believe in their capacity to influence things, they enable those who take part to appreciate the emotions that drive their own and others' behaviour.

When that happens, says Suffolk CC's chief executive, Lin Homer, people start wanting to become actively involved in order to improve the quality of public services. As they lose their cynicism about the possibility of change, an opportunity to put the fun back into local government is created.

www.antidote.org.uk

James Park

Director, antidote

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