Monday, 8 August 2011

Communities - empowered or engaged

What is the difference between community engagement and community empowerment? A good basic explanation is given by the Local Government Group. Community engagement is about talking and listening to local groups. The Group suggests that "Residents can be sceptical about consultation. They often believe that it is a phoney 'box ticking' process and that the council had already decided what it wants to do". Perhaps this is a result of consultation on the lines of "Which branch library would you like us to close?" or "Should we shut the library on Monday or Friday?"

Community empowerment  is defined as the outcome of engagement. "Power, influence and responsibility is shifted away from existing centres of power and into the hands of communities and individual citizens".

Both terms are used in the report Future libraries: change, options and how to get there. Learning from the Future Libraries Programme Phase 1 published by the Local Government Group and MLA. "Empowering communities to do things their way" is one of the four "models of reform" presented in the report. This includes transfering library assets or management to a trust or community forum and the increased use of volunteers to run libraries. This has not proved popular with many campaigning groups such as Voices for the Library.

This is followed in the section "The ingredients for generating change" with a section on user and community engagement. This talks about the need for early engagement and the difference between engagement and consultation. "The dynamics of the [engagement] processes are entirely different and produce significantly different outcomes".

The question is has there really been widespread community engagement about libraries and has it really produced the outcome of a desire by communities for empowerment along the lines suggested in the report? Were they really demanding the transfer of library assetts and an increased use of volunteers? I suspect (and tell me if I am wrong) that most library authorities have not progressed far beyond consultation and into engagement, let alone uncovered a demand from communities to run their libraries. A quote from Hertfordshire and Shropshire councils on page 27 of the report ends "However, the engagement also highlighted the need to have 'professional' support and backing through the local authority".

Engagement is essential for public libraries. It can strengthen our case on the value of libraries. It can teach us important lessons about how we should deliver services. It might make us face up to an uncomfortable truth that communities would prefer community run libraries using volunteers to no library service at all. If that is the case we need to do some serious thinking about how we deliver that within the context of a professional library service.

True engagement with a community is not easy. It requires more than good intentions. SINTO is offering a training programme on Achieving Community Engagement through Action Learning. It takes an innovative approach to the subject which may be challenging but which I believe is worthwhile. So far no one has signed up to this. This event is not 'about' training. It is 'about' the future of libraries - change, options and how to get there. Public libraries need to engage with their own future as well as engage with their communities. They need to empower themselves as much as empower their communities.
[At the time of writing I could not find a working link to the Future libraries report. I will review this later.]
Link now added.

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