Sharing power 

Better Way roundtable, 21 March 2019 


Caroline Slocock from Better Way introduced the discussion topic: how to create opportunities for more people, especially those who are usually overlooked, to participate in setting the agenda.  We need to help more people develop a ‘constructive sense of entitlement’. We need a shift in political life away from command and control behaviours, listening better, and thinking locally wherever possible.

We’ve already started to explore how to do so through a number of essays in Insights for A Better Way, and blogs on the Better Way website, which include contributions from:

·       Sue Tibballs, who asks people to make more use of the immense latent ‘social power’ of civil society.

·       So Jung Rim, who tells how the Social Innovation Exchange is creating platforms that bring in diverse voices.

·       Richard Bridge, who argues that local authorities need to distribute power more equally.

·       Mark Johnson, who writes about how he’s challenged the deep-seated bias against experts in lived experience in the criminal justice system and built a movement.

·       Simon Shaw, who explains how Food Power is creating opportunities for people experiencing food poverty to set the agenda.

·       Sufina Ahmed, who points out that sharing power has to start with understanding power and privilege. 

·       Rhiannon Bearne, who call for a redirection of effort towards making rather than shaping power.

·       Avril McIntyre, who considers how to help others in ways which genuinely empower them.

Community organising

Nick Gardham from Community Organisers described the experience of community organising which listens to people and brings them together to take collective action on things they care about. He explored the concept of ‘sharing power’. This is not the same as giving power, or even shifting power. It implies a sense of responsibility on all sides. It requires trust and this is difficult for institutions and even more so for the majority of people, who do not believe that they can affect change, and are fearful of becoming visible. It can therefore be important to start on a small scale, with lunch clubs, litter-picks for example. Even small actions like these produce stories of personal change. They can and sometimes do also lead to campaigns for wider system change, and generate pressure on institutions to change their behaviour. So the experience of sharing power can produce conflict as well as collaboration. But sharing power does not happen of its own accord – it requires resources. The government funding in recent years to train community organisers is an example of what can and has been achieved.  

The Power Project

Steve Reed, Shadow Civil Society Minister, described the experience of introducing a Co-operative Council model in Lambeth when he was Council Leader. There was rapid improvement, but the gains fell away quickly when local policies shifted. It is not enough to address inequalities of wealth, health outcomes, etc, without addressing inequalities of power, which underpin them all. A non vio-lent revolution is needed, to take power from those who have it and abuse it, and share it with everyone else. This requires actions in different spheres: the economy, in community life, in local and national politics.  Politics is broken.  It is too remote from people. The social contract, that the proceeds of prosperity and growth should be shared fairly, has failed – a minority have accumulated even more. Big data has been used by companies to exploit us. We have failed to respond to the climate crisis. Our social institutions and our current forms of liberal democracy have failed to protect people, and so people are turning their backs on them. Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, the re-emergence of neo-fascism across Europe are all the result in a loss of public confidence in liberal democracy.  But we cannot give up on democracy – rather we need to ‘double down on democracy’.  This will require bottom up political renewal accompanied by change at the top.  We need to give people direct power, forms of democracy which will allow the workforce to take back a fair share. We need to nurture and develop the capacity of people to self-organise, and institutions which encourage this, radical models of devolution and participation. There are many barriers.  For example stasis within organisations – people in leadership roles are incentivised to maintain the organisational forms which have placed them at the top. There is always resistance to the threat that power will be taken away.  Politicians are threatened by the idea of building the capacity of people to take decisions themselves, and ensure that they are kept as outsiders, and people have little choice but to take up placards. We cannot take democracy for granted. Throughout history in most parts of the world the default position has been the autocracy of the ‘strong man’.  However, the appetite for democratic participation is evident. It can be seen in Barking & Dagenham, in Wigan, among climate change action groups, in the digital citizens’ platforms in Seoul.  A new form of politics is trying to emerge. We need a new settlement between citizen and state, more respectful relationships, a break- up of public and private and digital monopolies. The Power Project aims to understand this and too build a movement for a radical transformative type of politics.


In the discussion, the following points were made:  

  • Powerless is a lack of connection. Relationships – deep value relationships – are needed to help people build trust, come together, and discover their own power.  Connectedness and solidarity are the antidote to powerlessness. We should consider how to build connection, and therefore collective efficacy, and how those in a privileged place can help with this. We should also consider how to incorporate relationship-friendly design in many aspects of our lives if we are to overcome powerlessness. 

  • There were different views about whether it is necessary to take power from those who have excessive amounts in order to increase power among those who have very little, or whether power is potentially infinite, and therefore the task should be to build power among those who have little.  It was suggested that communities are latently powerful because all political power ultimately derives from them. It was also noted that even the most powerful can feel powerless in some circumstances, and that the oppressed can become the oppressor. But the reality is that the somewhat powerless are those who most exclude the completely powerless. If we are to achieve a power shift, people and agencies will need to give up some power, but will usually be resistant to this, or even where the leadership is willing to make a change, they will find it hard to do so.  So we will need measures which support, guide, and reward the shifting and the sharing of power.

  • We need to help people understand how political systems work, and to deal honestly with unrealistic expectations.  Concentrations of power are a problem.  Power always agglomerates and perpetuates itself. In this country power is concentrated in Westminster and in the two party system.  We need measures such as proportional representation or sortition (selection of people at random to exercise decision making, as with the jury system) to break it up. Participatory forms of democracy, as in participatory budgeting, and subsidiarity in decision making, are other measures which can resist the tendency towards centralisation of power.  There appears to be an appetite in some parts of government to do things differently, as indicated in the Community Paradigm report from the New Local Government Network.

  • Power can operate horizontally (power with) rather than vertically (power over). We should develop institutions and practices which encourage the former and discourage the latter. The funding of social programmes should allow activity beyond formal limits when people have the appetite to go further themselves.  It is possible to build a set of principles and tools, sing for example common good thinking, to encourage people to come together and share power. A lot of what is needed is already known.  For example, a recent Big Lottery Fund report identified what is needed to help people take on power in the context of place:  

o   Know the history, background and context of place

o   Invest in people and relationships

o   Work with others to build a shared vision for change

o   Start small, try different things

o   Allow for variation

o   Be realistic. Accept mistakes and failure, make space for learning and reflection.

o   Keep looking for change.

  • If we can create connected, accountable communities we will be better placed to deal with the big national challenges, it was suggested. Forging relationships helps build movements such as MeToo and how people with HIV made change happen by demanding it.

  • However local action is not sufficient: locality can be the seat of disempowerment, a bastion of white and male privilege.  It may be that ‘power’ is not the best way to organise our thinking.  A focus on power, and how people can discover their power, tends to side-line considerations of equality and inclusion. People do not start from an equal place.   

  • There is a relationship between power and wellness – listening, responding, self-organising, truth telling are the things which make people well, and powerful. 

  • Some parts of the public services system are attempting to share power, though co-production, co-design etc, notably in the health services, but institutional change is proving extremely difficult in practice. The NHS Alliance, for example, has developed a model for power sharing.

  • A sense of entitlement is well developed among those who have power and wealth. Can we develop a sense of entitlement among other groups, including young people?  Within our educational system we need to do much more to build an appreciation of what it is to be an individual in society. The most vulnerable may not be able to run things, but they still deserve a voice and to be listened to, and responded to.  We need to provide support to help people build their voice.  

  • The ways in which power is built and maintained is not only through hard power (coercion, legislation, military and economic systems) but also through soft power (persuasion, culture, values, etc).  We should not underestimate how language, narrative, story-telling can act as a disruptor to prevailing power, or reinforce it.  If we are to shift power we need to communicate differently, to ask questions rather than tell people, to encourage others to speak, to learn how to hear silence as well. 

  • In a delta the pilots who live a fragile subsistence life know the intricate waterways and therefore have some power, because the ships which pass through depend upon the pilot for safe navigation. If the delta was to be bombed the waterways would became clear, the pilots would lose power. Do we need to empower people to be pilots, or bomb the delta – in other words work within the existing system, or change the system?

It may be that a shift in power and a sharing of power will require significant internal culture change, resources to make a sustained difference, and the need for both bottom up and top down actions.