Citizen empowerment: John Denham’s speech on the Labour vision

Unlock Democracy held the second in a series of lectures in the run up to the election about ‘Citizenship Empowerment’ yesterday. The first, in November was given by Oliver Letwin who gave the Conservative take on empowerment, and yesterday, John Denham gave Labour’s vision for the agenda.

John Denham outlined that Labour strongly believe that citizens have the right to shape the community and services they receive but acknowledged that busy lives meant citizens can’t be involved in participative processes everyday. Labour believe that the best way to make sure that people can shape services is to give them information through readily accessible means, primarily, the internet. He said that this would enable citizens to health check what is happening in their area and use the information to press for change.

They also want to change culture of information sharing; instead of citizens having to specifically request information, they want it to be freely available so that the onus is on service providers to provide it, rather than on the citizen to ask.

This is all remarkably simple stuff. ‘Knowledge is power’ immediately springs to mind – if you are to arm people with information about their local service provision, they are more likely to be able to understand it and suggest how to change it for the better.

Labour and the Conservatives are not poles apart in their thinking. Back in November, Oliver Letwin gave the Conservative empowerment vision which outlined access to information as a key means to provide accountability to citizens; but with one key difference. Where Labour want information to provide a means for citizens to propose local changes, the Conservatives want to make information available as a means for people to make informed choices about which services they use.

Whilst these are good ideas, making information available does not mean that it is accessible. It will not be good enough for information to be posted without any thought to how it will be used. Either local government, or other providers locally will have to take information and make it accessible for local citizens to use – at present, it has not been outlined who will take responsibility for this. In either scenario, the capacity to present and digest the information in a user friendly manner will need to be developed, and it will have to be clear where sources of funding will come from to make this happen.