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In the film Goodbye Lenin!, a Communist Party stalwart wakes up after lying in a coma throughout the downfall of the former East Germany.

Fearful that the news of so much change will trigger another heart attack, her well-meaning son goes to absurd lengths to convince her that the German Democratic Republic is alive and well, even putting Dutch gherkins in a Soviet-era jar.

Here in the UK, the fear is the reverse: it’s that the body politic won’t survive unless it can be convinced everything is changing.

As we ponder whether it’s worth voting in next week’s elections, the backdrop is a stream of news that we are being empowered.

And if we fail to feel empowered, it won’t be for want of government action. Indeed, we’ve had so much action, for so long, that it feels more like an addiction than a strategy.

There is another way of looking at empowerment, which rescues us from the sense that it’s an opiate dispensed by Whitehall dealers. But to get there, and to realise ministers’ hopes of active citizens, strengthened communities and partnership with public bodies, we need to explode a few myths.

You’ll find these myths not in the headlines and speeches, but in the behaviour of those tasked with putting empowerment into action.

Myth number one is that policy is action. This is the emperor’s new clothes all over again. Myth two is that empowerment is exclusive. That’s self-evidently absurd – yet how many voluntary organisations have we seen jockeying for position to be chosen as the instruments of empowerment?

Myth three is that empowerment comes from government. That’s about as empowering as queuing up at a petrol station. The empowered don’t wait in line.

Myth four is that empowerment should be left to the specialists. There are already academics writing dense volumes on ‘empowerment theory’.

Which brings us to myth five: that we can achieve empowerment through disempowering actions.

If you think nobody would be so brainless, flick back to the capricious decision to scrap the ‘third sector strategic partners’ programme, or examine the decimation of community empowerment networks.

When having your say is in the gift of the authorities, that isn’t empowerment: it’s patronage.

Instead, let’s start on the margins, listening to the concerns of the disempowered, and giving them resources to enable them to start taking action. And let’s resist the urge to take the credit for what they achieve.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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