Change that leads to better lives

Empowerment in Independent Advocacy by Peter Irvine

Empowerment can be defined as processes applied by others that facilitate the capacity of other individuals or groups to exercise personal autonomy of decision making and action.

Approaches to empowerment can take lots of forms and has different emphases in different disciplines. In terms of independent advocacy, the emphasis seems to mainly relate to the promotion and facilitation of self-advocacy as a means of participation and increased control in decision-making affecting that individual’s life.

Empowerment

To achieve this aim advocates must initially plan with the individual what level of control and involvement that each should have in terms of achieving the individual’s preferred outcomes both in terms of tangible practical outcome, such as, moving to more suitable accommodation and the degree of personal control that the individual has in the process of achieving that outcome.

In theory this appears a straightforward process but in practice I feel there are some problematic aspects that need to be taken into account.

As advocates, we often refer to the power differential in relationships between those we support and the professionals in their lives. We do not always seem to fully accept the impact of the power differential in our own advocacy relationships.

We refer to individual’s receiving advocacy support as clients. There are several different meanings to the term client with one being, ‘anyone under the patronage of another; a dependent.’ Whatever definitional meaning that is applied it suggests someone who ‘receives’ rather than someone who works in a ‘partnership’. I am confident that replacing the accepted term of advocacy client with advocacy partner would be a small but helpful step towards addressing the negative impact of the power differential between advocate and their advocacy partner. It could be argued that descriptive terms do not matter, however, we all know words and terminology do have personal impact and have the potential to disempower.

The facilitation of empowerment is also not straightforward, the Advocacy Charter requires that ‘People will choose their own level of involvement and the style of advocacy they want.’ This seems to leave very little scope for facilitating empowerment for those people so disempowered by their circumstances and experience that they feel unable to engage within a shared partnership arrangement. If the choice is made by the advocacy partner early in the planning stage that they want minimal involvement and just want the advocate to act wholly on their behalf what scope is there for this to be an empowering relationship? It seems to me that there should be scope for careful negotiation and encouragement in the planning and review phases of the advocacy cycle that provide ongoing opportunities for empowerment. Encouraging and facilitating advocacy partners to take more control of actions within an agreed plan is central to empowerment in advocacy relationships; opportunities for the most disempowered to take more control, although potentially challenging for the advocacy partner, should be creatively and sensitively explored. Discussions about the underlying reasons why a partner feels unable to take any responsibility within a shared advocacy plan should help both the partner and their advocate to address the underlying barriers.

Recent refocussing of advocacy within the Care Act and the Social Services and Well-being Act (Wales) which direct advocacy towards task-focussed advocacy and short term interventions also serve to undermine the empowerment opportunities previously available within longer term advocacy relationships. I know that most advocacy providers recognise this but it seems important that discussions with commissioners of independent advocacy services continue to place significant emphasis on longer term relationships that better facilitate confident self-advocacy and individual autonomy.

SCIE notes that supporting people to self-advocate should be the main aim of all forms of advocacy. No independent advocates could disagree but I feel there may not always be enough consideration of how within advocacy relationships empowerment can be facilitated, particularly when in partnership with individuals who lack any confidence to take on the emotional challenges that taking more personal responsibility involves.

There will always be a tension between achieving a tangible practical outcome in a timely way and the facilitation of empowerment. However, I feel that to be consistent with the advocacy principle of empowerment we all need to reflect on our practice and sensitively encourage and facilitate empowerment opportunities throughout the advocacy relationship. If we do not do this, we risk further disempowering partners by taking control of some of the planned actions that it would be more appropriate for the partner to be supported to undertake.

The doctors’ oath is ‘first do no harm’. I believe an advocates’ oath should be ‘first do not further disempower.’

Peter Irvine is currently delivering an Advocacy Development Project in West Wales. He previously worked in advocacy since 2005 as a non-statutory advocate, an IMCA and a Manager of a service supporting people with learning disabilities and people with an autistic spectrum condition. He also spent a year working for A4A as a Development Worker in Wales.

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