How many times have you heard employers or politicians talking about empowerment?

They’re going to give you permission to make decisions that affect you, or perhaps the people you serve. They’re going to allow you to organise things in a way that makes you feel happy with what you do, gives you the autonomy to do it right. Oh. That’s big of them, isn’t it?

This rests on some fundamental fallacies:

  1. In order to have any capability beyond some repetitive mechanical work someone has to give you permission.
  2. Someone has to pick you, and other people (therefore) have to wait.

Think about it – did Gandhi ask anyone for permission? He saw a problem with the world and just started doing whatever he could to change it. I went to Thinking Digital in May and one of the talks towards the end was a 15 year old who had come up with a cheap test for pancreatic cancer that will find early stage using carbon nanotubes, antibodies and filter paper. Wow.

He’s bright, very bright. But lots of other people are too. He was upset by the loss of a relative to this disease and decided to do something about it, he read a lot and came up with some things to try. Then he badgered some medics with research facilities until one let him come and try to develop a protocol.

It works, I hope it will come soon too. But the point I’m making here is no-one told this fantastic young person no. No-one gave him permission. He just went and did something that makes the world a better place.

So, the next time someone offers to empower you tell them where to get off. Pick yourself.

If you work in a way that creates systems and processes where human beings make human decisions then empowerment is not needed, permission is not needed. Grab that filter paper, grab those nanotubes, talk to that person.

DO IT.

Since I first made this post, which is a sketch of an idea I will develop further in Unicorns in the Mist‘s next outing more things have occurred to me that I wanted to share here.

I was chatting on Facebook and realised that I believe empowerment is also insulting. To clarify:

Insulting to the “empowered” – as in “you’re no longer too child like to look after yourself”. My take comes from a lot of the rhetoric you used to hear when people who had been disenfranchised by poverty or some disability where being ‘empowered’ by the state to make bogus ‘choices’. Instead of addressing the real need for creating systems that meet and help their needs they were so powerful they can fill in a survey. This is of course a simplification but I hope it helps getting the point across.

And, of course, the flip side of being given permission is that it also allows the giver to take it away again. That’s big of them too. It assumes a paternal relationship and distribution of power where the empoweree (sic) has to rely on others to validate what they do. Just take a look at the whole crazy gang of incompetents and buffoons that try to run your life and think about how little permission they can ever grant you, or anyone else.

One of the other speakers at Thinking Digital was talking about opening up government data, which is a cause dear to my heart. Apparently at least some of the nominal owners of this data are concerned that people like us, the poor unwashed masses, might draw the wrong conclusions from this data. Wrong in terms of whatever ideology or spin they want to put on it. So the empowerment that this data may bring should be conditional on whatever they think we should be saying or knowing. Yeah. Bless them.

As Deming is reputed to have said in Jesus Christ we trust, all others must bring data. I’m not a Christian, but the rest of the sentiment is sound 🙂

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