Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Power and participation Part 1

by Jane Cooke

I have been thinking a lot about power recently. Often my trains of thought are prompted by consideration of personal power. Some people assume that they have personal power and that seems to prompt a response in others that confirms this; other people defer, give away their own power. I am not sure that this is good for anyone, but I see a lot of it. Then I wander off into thinking about structural power. Who, as a result of the position that they hold in an organisation, has the power to require or demand certain actions and responses from others?

My experiences over the years have ranged from working with groups and networks of people who use/have used mental health services to working as a counsellor for a year in a prison, to being involved in reviews of NHS mental health trusts. Throughout all of these experiences there has been a theme; that many people, no matter what their position, feel that ‘The Power’ lies elsewhere. Someone else, some other group of people or some structural body, such as a Committee somewhere has ‘power over’ services, chief executives, service users, or the ‘power to’ concede or deny, for example, a place on a joint committee or board, or to close a service or to require that changes to working practices are made, to give or withhold funding or services.

The ‘power to’ sense that individuals and groups of people can take on board themselves seems to be dimmed right now. People working in services who would like to question views and cultures in their services can feel as if they had better not stick their head above the parapet. Organisations can feel limited in their capacity to explore and support challenging ideas (and people!) if they feel that a funder ‘won’t like it’. People who might coalesce around some form of collective action, identity or pressure group can feel that such actions might jeopardise their chances of making progress in the situations where they are involved, or participate.

This feeling that some OTHER has ‘power over’ or ‘power to '(do unto us)’ both stems from and leads to fear – fear of censure, or public criticism, of withdrawal of something valued, of negative comparisons. We live in an age that generates and feeds on fear. Our many forms of communication can spread and heighten fear. Much advertising is based on promoting fear, if you don’t buy this product whether it’s insurance or some sort of ‘germ’ killer, you will be endangering yourself or those you love. Much news coverage is based on fear and a lot of political policies and promotion major on fear; capturing media interest as they do so.

But what if we moved toward a conception of ‘power with’? As far as I know these ideas of power over, power to and power with originated in the peace and non-violent direct action movements. I find them very helpful. So; power with, what would that look and feel like? I wonder if people who are involved as citizens or service users in formal situations, committees and boards, feel as if they are in a ‘power with’ situation? I’d be inclined to imagine that often they don’t. It would be really interesting to hear from those of you in such situations. Do you feel as if you are truly sharing power and if so, what leads to and supports that? In my own experience, which goes back nearly 30 years, people in these situations have been asking for parity in one form or another for at least as long as that: receiving minutes in time, important paperwork circulated in a timely manner, acceptance that agenda items can be added, access to administrative facilities as a right, recognition of the representational time-frame required if people are to be ‘representatives’, meetings at a time and place accessible to all who want to and maybe have been elected to, attend, out of pocket expenses met in cash, broadband and Information Technology (IT) costs met. I would be very interested to hear of examples where there has been ‘up-front’ thinking around these issues before people are invited to the table, before it has been brought up by those ‘reps’, or equally current examples of representatives still finding themselves in these situations.

‘Power with’ requires a shift of mind-set. Power over might appease an ego, I would venture to say that it doesn’t do much good for the soul.

Look out for Part 2 of Jane's piece on Power and participation soon. What are your thoughts? We would like to hear from you. If you have any comments or questions just add them below.

Written by Jane Cooke in her capacity as a counsellor and psychotherapist, trainer and facilitator. All views are entirely her own. Email jane.cooke@heartfeltwork.co.uk


  1. Very interesting an thought provoking. Looking forward to part 2.

    1. Thank you - I hope you find part two as interesting. It would be good to know any further thoughts

  2. Really interesting, there are some similarly nuanced ideas about power found in academic political theory. It's interesting that the list of criteria necesary for representatives to operate as equals in your last paragraph is so long! It's good that these issues are being aired though, and that "up-front thinking" is being promoted.

    1. I suppose that I think that the list of things is not so much criteria as indicators of the way that people are thought about - they are demonstrations of power - often not in a thought through way - Goffman's work on institutions - (I haven't read it for a very long time - so am happy to be corrected!) I think is relevant still - although I am not talking about 'closed institutions' like prisons here - I do experience this kind of thing as an expression of power - often 'out of awareness'

    2. Also looking forward to part 2