While there are a growing number of examples of asset based approaches most of these are at project and locality level. What concerns me is how to move to a more systemic approach that actually changes the way that systems work.
This is not new – community work and community development have always faced this problem – trying to translate activity with people on the margins into mainstream action. Of course the biggest problem is that – like much community work – asset based approaches require a shift in power between professionally lead public sector bodies and citizens and communities.
Unlike in the past the ambition and rhetoric of asset based rhetoric can now often be heard at the top of local systems – among elected members, chief executives and so on. The challenge is that systems have a huge inertia and cultural baggage that means that even when people are well intentioned their behaviours and management techniques do not equip them to set in train actions that will allow asset based approaches to flourish.
So, the risk is that these will stay in the project or local community work box.
I think that an effective approach to achieving system change has to do two things:
- Have an analysis of some of the deficits presented by the current paradigm – so we don’t fall into the same ways of behaving.
- Use change techniques that play to strengths of asset based working – rather than to those that reinforce current system behaviours.
So, we need to consider some of the factors that drive current deficit culture and hence behaviour in the current system. If we do not recognise this we risk either reinforcing it or becoming frustrated by what might feel like unhelpful and obstructive responses.
A strategy for failure
When we present arguments about the need to shift to a more asset based approach it is assumed that:
- decision makers have the best analysis of what needs exist and how to allocate resources to respond to these – yet we know that much community led activity is not recognised in commissioning
- we will make our case to commissioners because they are the key decision makers and custodians of service outcomes – yet most of the resources they are responsible for are already allocated to big providers who are the ones actually responsible for delivering the services
- we will be able to demonstrate how asset based approaches by themselves will help meet government targets and make savings to the current system – yet many government targets focus on simplistic measures that have little relationship to lived experience – for example trolley waits and A&E waiting times, and asset based approaches are only part of the solution. Asset based approaches can help existing services and pathways be better – but they are not the solution in themselves and should not be judged in isolation.
This is not territory where we will win. We need a different set of arguments – that will release asset based approaches – I think that some of these are:
Vision – We need to set out our own view – building from the grassroots of what makes a fair community for all. I think that Fairness Commissions organised by a number of local authorities provide an important, alternative and local view that stands outside the sound bite policies of national government.
Information – It is crucial that local voluntary and community organisations have access to the data that allows them to locate their contribution into the wider context. This is a bit like a JSNA – but starting from the perspective of grass roots organisations rather than commissioners.
Imagine if all the community dance groups (or running clubs, advice centres etc) in an an area could each see how they contributed to the total number of people taking part in dance (or whatever) in a local authority area. They could use this information to apply for funding and be better able to make the case for themselves, rather than relying on commissioners to do so for them.
Flourishing community sector – we need decision makers across commissioners and providers to answer this question “what can we do to help grass roots voluntary organisations flourish in our area?” I suspect that part of the answer is to make it easy for people to come together to set up and run their own community organisations – key to this is making small grants easily available, but other examples exist such as the participatory budget process developed by Durham County Council.
Service and Pathway redesign – we need a different dialogue with provider organisations like big hospital trusts or GPs. We need to get round the commissioner/provider divide and support these big providers shift to a wider world view – engaging with the ‘citizen’ rather than the ‘patient’. Part of this has to involve these big providers developing collaborations with their local voluntary and community sector to together design pathways of care and support.
What do you think?