Ideas in Action

February 26, 2016 | Posted by: Scott Ko

Independent and empowered – Realising our full potential

Cube’s Public Value Compass describes key individual and community dimensions of public value outcomes. This blog is the seventh in a series that looks at each of these dimensions in detail. This week, we look at ‘independence and empowerment’.

If you don’t know the origin of an enigmatic proverb, say it is ancient Chinese. Of mid-nineteenth century British origin, the proverb ‘If you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour; if you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn’, has fallen foul of this spurious etymological rule but remains a staple for good reason.

Many of us seek to achieve a state of independence – within which we can be free from the control and influence of, and dependence on, others. However, we are neither born nor automatically grow into a state of independence.

This blog explores independence as a desired state or outcome alongside the powerfully related concept of empowerment, which we see as representing the mechanism through which we can achieve that independence.



Negative freedom – the freedom of interference from others – has been an enduring notion in Western philosophy. The freedoms we appreciate in Australia and other democratic nations are highly prized and, in many ways, defining.

Among other things, our independence is characterised by freedom of movement and of speech, it means we have the right to make choices about the kind of learning, work and leisure we want to pursue, as well as the kind of person we want to be and who we love.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs perhaps serves as a useful model for systematically representing degrees of independence. Maslow identified five levels of needs distinguishing between basic or deficiency needs (physiological, safety, love / belonging, and esteem) and growth needs (self actualisation).

Entrenched disadvantage and poverty is an obvious obstruction to the achievement of independence. Heartbreakingly, researchers have found that the ‘cognitive cost’ of poverty may be as high as 10 IQ points. This figure is attributed to the cognitive load required to manage the stress and practicalities of living under difficult or precarious conditions. Put simply, those researchers found that just by giving money to those in poverty, their IQ rose. This factor, alongside structural, economic and social barriers can impact on an individual’s capacity to lift themselves from their circumstances.

The links between education and employment as contributors to independence are obvious. However, even education and employment are no longer a guarantee of personal or financial independence, as the imbalance between wages and cost of living (such as housing) can make it nearly impossible for workers to realise independence in spite of their best efforts. Affordable housing is defined as that which costs no more than 30% of a household’s income. The high price of private rental accommodation in many capital cities worldwide has forced up rates of homelessness amongst people who have paid employment.


Basic support is also generally accepted as necessary to support the transition from childhood dependence to adult independence. But sometimes these needs are not met, as shown in 2015 in the widely reported case of a Melbourne teenager and aspiring law student forced to sleep rough while attending year 11 classes.

Safeguarding and protecting independence and freedom is incredibly important and lies in the hands of our democratic and legal institutions. As much as the institutions themselves, our independence and freedoms are protected by the value we place on them, and the vigilance and effort with which we attend them.

Compared globally, Australia performs reasonably on factors associated with ‘self-actualisation’. The Legatum Institute Prosperity Index ranked Australia 9th in the world on the sub-index on personal freedom, including variables such as civil liberty and free choice, satisfaction with freedom of choice as well as tolerance for immigrants and minorities.


Empowerment is the provision of support so that people can achieve independence. Empowerment is about fostering for each person the capability, support and structures to achieve their life goals, and the means necessary to create opportunities for themselves.

All sorts of organisations, institutions, and systems play a role in empowering people. These include but are certainly not confined to:

  • Educational institutions – from pre-school through to universities, technical colleges and adult education classes
  • Aged care services and facilities that enable older people to live full and active lives
  • Safety nets such as the unemployment benefit and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)
  • Advisory services and networks to help people into work, support fledgling businesses or enhance other economic activities

A range of government and not-for profit initiatives also focus on cultivating life skills and helping individuals breaking free of certain constraints of complex problems. Such programs might, for example, teach people to cook or manage their finances, seek to address or manage trauma, kick addiction or create other kinds of behaviour change.

The right tipping point between provision of support that fosters empowerment and support that encourages dependence is often subject to intense political debate, both in Australia and overseas. Work for the dole schemes and compulsory wait times for unemployment benefits have each received a great deal of media and public attention over the last twenty-four months. Most of the time the espoused aim is for initiatives to give people a step up to achieve independence but, arguably, the right conditions are required to fairly expect the achievement of independence across the board even with a helping hand. Last month the both the British Labour and Green parties seriously mooted the policy of universal basic income, whilst on the other side of the world, some cities are finding great success in addressing homeless issues simply by giving them homes.

What can we do in Australia?

Connecting the concepts of independence and empowerment provides a useful framework for identifying and analysing the efficacy of programs. While it is easier to identify initiatives aiming to empower people, the end-goal is often to enhance the public value outcome of independence. If we look at empowerment initiatives as a pathway to independence, we are well positioned to analyse and anticipate factors that may impede this broader goal – we only need to look at negative gearing for an example where the long term impact has perhaps been counter-productive.

These are some of the many facets of independence and empowerment that need to be considered by public value organisations. Perhaps now is a good time to assess the empowering public value of your work. Is there a danger of aiming for empowerment and independence but not finding the right balance?

This blog is the seventh of a series exploring the Public Value Compass. Make sure to follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn for updates and articles on the other segments of the Compass.


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