Bookmark and SharePerry Walker is head of the Democracy and Participation team at nef

Launching the Conservative election manifesto, David Cameron said, “We should remember the basic rule: that when you give people responsibility, they behave responsibly.”

The logic of this is that if you take responsibility away, you deter people from behaving responsibly. Seems obvious. Surely organizations understand this? Especially when ‘empowerment’ is a term in such vogue.  Sadly, they don’t. My personal Villain of the Month Award goes to Somerset County Council. It’s a provisional award, because I have only read one side of the story, but the story, in the Spring 2010 edition of the Ramblers’ ‘Walk’ magazine, seems pretty clear cut:

Mendip Ramblers’ long-established team of footpath workers has had to cease its weekly repairs after Somerset County Council decided instead to roll out its own volunteer scheme. ‘We’re angry and frustrated,’ says organizer Bob Berry, “All we wanted to do is continue to help keep local rights of way open and usable.

That rang a bell that took me back to Bea Campbell’s marvelous book of 1993, Goliath. She tells a story set in Meadowell in Newcastle, where a corporation depot was being used as a dump. A resident called Nancy asked: ‘The kids have nowhere to play. Why can’t we have a park?’ Children, adults and an advice centre then got together to create one. The children’s top priority was a ‘parkie’ – a keeper to keep it safe. No money, said the council. So, every day, on a rota, residents opened up in the morning and locked up at night. Every Sunday they had a clean up.

However, after a year they discovered that the council was about to employ a play worker. With no consultation, they felt hurt and snubbed. The Sunday clean-up stopped, and the treasured play site deteriorated.

Aren’t those two stories similar, despite being separated by ten years and the length of the country? They are similar both in what the councils did and in the effect that had on local people.

I conclude that it is very hard to empower people. They choose whether to empower themselves. But it is pretty easy to disempower them. So beware.