Empowerment has become a buzzword: both over-used and poorly understood. There are varying definitions, from a Machiavellian focus on getting what you want to a frustratingly intangible discourse about states of mind and psychological constructs. At their heart, however, all definitions are about policy influence. An empowered group can exert policy influence to their maximal potential by altering the policy trajectory to achieve policy change. This might be a subtle shift in framing, bringing a new issue to the agenda, or altering policy output, depending on both their potential for empowerment and the policy context. Empowerment matters because, at present, there is a glaring democratic deficit in social policy, where those marginalised groups most in need of policy change find themselves among the least able to exert influence.
In my research, which focuses on the policy influence of marginalised groups, and specifically on autistic influence, I propose a pragmatic approach. What can be done to promote empowerment? There is a tightrope to be walked between usurping the power of marginalised groups by seeing empowerment as a gift to be bestowed, and the opposite extreme of responsibilisation, which expects the marginalised group to empower themselves. I argue that there are steps that marginalised groups can take to empower themselves – but that this doesn’t exonerate governments from playing their part too.
My recent article, published in European Policy Analysis, sets out the ways in which governments can design policies in such a way as to facilitate the empowerment of marginalised groups. Governments have the ability to make changes to the political opportunity structure which governs opportunities for influence. They can make structural changes, such as creating new opportunities for political participation. They can mandate the representation of certain groups on decision-making bodies. They have the resources to mount campaigns which can reframe how a particular group is perceived. They can even let marginalised groups co-govern.
My analysis of Western European autism policy proposed three categories of autism policy design determined according to how governments frame autistic people: as lacking capacity and needing to be ‘Informed’; as having sufficient potential to be ‘Involved’, and as capable of being ‘Empowered’. The majority of countries fell in the Informed and Involved categories, with only two, England and Denmark, making the top rank. More surprisingly, the categories did not match up with traditional disability policy groupings: the United Kingdom was split across Involved and Empowered, while Spain left its Southern European counterparts in Informed to join Involved, indicating that autism policy may behave differently to other disability policies.
England made history in 2009 when it passed the Autism Act, the first disability-specific law. 2020 marks ten years since the first Autism Strategy was released, creating the perfect opportunity to assess how far the Autism Act and its subsequent Strategies, which sought to empower autistic people, actually succeeded in doing so. I’m currently carrying out interviews, a survey and focus groups to find out. Watch this space for more information.