From public engagement to public empowerment

Is real public engagement possible without public empowerment? How can we best organize public empowerment? Mary Parker Follett (1868 – 1933), one of management theory’s pioneers argues that “The wish to govern one’s own life is one of the most definitive feelings in every human being”. She mainly worked on the psychological underpinnings of individuals and groups, and carried out studies on how to organize and ensure empowerment in organizations. In this article, we attempt to extract the most crucial criteria of “good” empowerment and we try to evolve from public “engagement” to “empowerment” in the context of research and innovation policy.

What is empowerment?  There is no single agreed-upon understanding of what empowerment is. However, Follett refers to it as  to “the process which results from changes in organizational contextual and individual inter-relational variables such as the amounts and quality of information and the degree of expressed trust and confidence the person receives from the work environment as well as the degree of real responsibility she/he feels for work outcomes”. It can be concluded that three interrelated variables are needed for empowerment: good quality of information exchange, a high degree of real responsibility that people take, and trust between each other. Follett also warns about the empowerment paradox, where she argues that “The very fact that one group is in the position to judge if others are dis-empowered and then to decide what to “give” so that they will become “empowered” indicates that true empowerment is not occurring”. She advises to think not in terms of dichotomies and hierarchies, such as leaders and followers, but be focused on the function.

The signs of “good” empowerment in business structure by M.P. Follett Possible adaptation for public policy in responsible research innovation (RRI)
  • The free exchange of information is a prerequisite for achieving functional empowerment;
  • Genuine coordination is impossible so long as information is withheld by organizational members who view their specialized knowledge as a means of gaining power.


  • The free exchange of information and a transparent policy-making process (such as public hearings, providing information on open internet sources) is crucial in RRI in order to:
    • Create a more scientifically literate society;
    • Get feedback from citizens if a certain innovation is needed.
  • Mutual trust should be developed to ensure empowerment.
  • Public opinion should be engaged earlier and heard in the design of new solutions. This contributes to fostering more societally relevant and desirable research and innovation outcomes.
  • Synergy – interacting individuals create mutual dialectic interaction where they create more than what they could have separately.
  • Group synergy – the ability of organization members to maximize each other’s potential.


  • Group synergies could be effectively used in collective work with citizens to develop new solutions. Synergistic outcomes at the individual and organizational levels would also lead to new enhanced outcomes for society as whole.
  • Synergistic work in RRI provides an opportunity to develop differing perspectives and creativity in research design and results.
  • The empowerment paradox: only when everyone views each other equally will true empowerment occur. It is only under these circumstances that individuals can bring their unique experiences and abilities to the organization.
  • From the RRI perspective, citizens bring in their living experience perspective – they can tell what they feel and which needs a certain innovation or technology should contribute to satisfy. They will feel empowered when engaged in co-design activities, for example to discuss scenarios of utilization of the technology in their own living context.  Citizens may also learn “horizontally”, from other citizens who are early adopters of new technologies and solutions, about how these can change their lives and behaviors.

However, it is important to note that many who rush into empowerment programs should heed Follett’s warning “To confer authority where capacity has not been developed is fatal to both government and business”. For RRI, these capacities can be seen as mechanisms that let citizens influence technology and innovation processes, not in terms of the technology, but from the users’ expertise. For example, if new self-driving electric cars for short distances are introduced in a city, a citizen might suggest that they be used for persons with disabilities, while the rest walk instead of using this technology. This is how citizens can influence RRI through their expertise.

At the same time, the public should be aware that empowerment comes with responsibility. As Follett says, “The question is not how much managers are willing to give up, but rather how much are workers are willing to assume”. These ideas are very important to keep in mind for the COCTEAU project, which aims to be an experimental tool for public engagement.

The question of empowerment should be also addressed in the public realm. However, here there is a fundamental difference in the engagement of users in the context of research and innovation design. In public policy making. Here users and citizens are not involved to deliberate something, as it would be in a public participation process aiming to support policy makers in the formulation of a given policy or decision. They are involved to become more aware and better informed of the coming technologies and their possible impacts, and make their own judgement of what should be done to address related challenges in society and in their personal life. Empowered citizens in this respect will become more aware of what they can do by themselves to help solve the problem at hand (e.g. by changing behavior), and what policy makers can do to address it. If citizens have a better sense of what policy makers can do, they can vote in democratic elections for the candidates that fit their realistic – and informed – expectations.  This is particularly necessary in the case of new technologies whose potential impact is not generally known, but that could potentially disrupt the status quo and transform future everyday living environments and opportunities – a matter that is central for the “responsible research and innovation” engagement process.