Skip to content

Between a rock and a hard place – Turning Asset Based Approaches Inside Out

May 6, 2015

Introductory Noteblog assets 3

My last blog (Asset based working – its not just the community bit around the edges) looked at some of the challenges and possible actions required to mainstream asset based working. I was pleased to get a friendly critique from Simon Rippon, Trevor Hopkins and Jayne Hopkins who are doing interesting work in this area. Just to be clear – I don’t agree with everything they say (especially the point about people in my local not understanding participatory budgeting!) but its worth reading and helps develop our thinking. So I have republished their comment as a blog piece below – over to them…….

Thanks Mark, but what a position you put us in! How to champion asset-based thinking and working at a locality level while actually changing the way that health and care systems work.

In Chapter 4 of our new report, ‘Head, hands and heart: asset-based approaches in health care’ published by the Health Foundation in April, we set out and respond to the principal challenges and criticisms of asset-based approaches. This chapter covers many of the points you make in your blog.

Not wishing to re-cover this ground, as our perspectives are there for people to read, we would like to add to this discussion by responding to your call to consider some of the factors that drive current deficit culture and hence behaviour in the current system.

Your blog seems to be aimed at an audience mainly in the ‘public health’ system. Whilst these are important players they are not the sole agents for systematising asset-based approaches.

Positioned in local government, public health has a huge potential to develop asset-based approaches, and some are doing just this. But the majority are stuck in a risk-based delivery model still attempting, not very successfully, to persuade people to change their lifestyles or health risk behaviour. We would argue that PH is complicit in perpetuating this emphasis. Our colleague Lynne Friedli has argued this too in recent published articles and seminars.

Asset based working is not just another public health ‘intervention’ it involves a paradigm shift in thinking about the health and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities based on ‘salutogenic’ principles.

You rightly say that this challenge to community development is not new and requires a “shift in power between professionally led public sector bodies and citizens and communities.” The recent report from Public Health England by Professor Jane South (A guide to Community Centred Approaches to Health and Wellbeing) articulates this well. But this is only part of the problem: power also needs to shift within organisations if professionals and practitioners are to work in asset-based ways.

Research sponsored by The Royal College of Nursing Group found that distribution of power in health and care systems is often hierarchical, based on professional status and gender. Driven by patient safety the NHS especially has attempted to challenge these imbalances in acute services over recent years with very limited success.

It is no better in many voluntary and community organisations as there is often a split between the frontline who ‘get and do’ asset-based working instinctively and the culture and systems within these organisations, often driven by public-sector commissioning procedures and outcome frameworks that are about process inputs and unhealthy behaviours, a deficit based emphasis. In our field work for the Health Foundation report a Community Development Leader commented that his organisation had spent years investing in community and voluntary services to do community work which in turn had built a parallel system and infrastructure that had become dependent on commissioning to survive – with little evidence they had made any impact in community-led action.
Participatory budgeting is a classic system-led response. It is, as John McKnight one of the originators of Asset Based Community Development would contend, building communities from the ‘outside in’ while asset-based working seeks to build community from the ‘inside out’. Even the words are exclusive, ‘participatory budgeting’ – try bringing that topic up for conversation at your local pub on a Friday evening.

Another factor driving current deficit culture is leadership that relies on positional power, direct control and organisational outputs. To support asset-based approaches we require new models of community leadership based on credibility and earned authority rather than positional or professional power. These characteristics will allow the building of new sources of power and influence and “…concentrate on enabling systems, organisations and people to work simply and seamlessly together, maximising the synergy of the collective rather than the individual. They also draw the best from diverse groups to enable a source of collective or shared governance where felt responsibility for achievement is stronger than imposed systems of accountability.” (A real paradigm shift in NHS Leadership? By Robin Douglas and Jane Keep. HSJ – May 3, 2012)

While agreeing that we need ‘a more systemic approach’ – it just depends on what you mean by ‘the system’. In many places local people are active, volunteer, form clubs and associations, help each other out and support more vulnerable people – organising what is seen as asset-based working! This has been happening for centuries and has sprung from local action not service-based ‘system’ action. And may have occurred due to lack of confidence in communities for established ‘mainstream’ public service delivery.

One of the approaches we suggest in our new publication is the use of a ‘Theory of Change’ to understand how asset-based change occurs. Theory of Change is about the central processes or drivers by which change comes about for individuals, groups or communities. This can be based on a formal research methodology and is well suited to asset-based approaches given the iterative and collaborative nature of the process, which involves aspects of systems and complexity thinking.

Our proposition for as Theory of Change toward asset based practice has four key stages

• reframing towards assets
• recognising assets
• mobilising assets
• co-producing assets and outcomes

The stages are not linear, but may be ordered to suit the particular situation and context of the initiative.

In the context of your blog and in response to your challenge to move asset-based approaches, indeed all forms of community work, into mainstream action we suggest we are still in the early days of Stage 1. The reframing of thinking is an obvious but critical stage in the move toward asset-based working.

Understanding how the public health system contributes to such activity is vital – is it to be a joint participant in local place based action? A commissioner of system development? It’s the inside-out or outside-in perspective that is part of the real politic of this agenda.

Reframing can signal a shift in practice culture towards an asset-based model and is a significant step. In our case-study research reframing towards assets was mostly described as an explicit activity or event in teams, groups and organisations. Often the reframing is a systemic action. Against this backdrop, current practice and priorities can be reassessed and new outcomes defined.

Whatever the trigger for the rethink, or the scale of the change envisaged, the first challenge is to change the culture.

Reflecting the values and principles of asset-based working we are growing this approach from the inside out at project and locality level. We would contend that it is too soon for this to be mainstreamed.

“Changing to an asset-based approach offers and creates a new relational perspective. It is not a set of tools or techniques that can be applied without a change in organisational culture and individual practice. It must be a process, not a top-down plan.”

(‘Head, hands and heart’ p.23)

What do you think?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2015 10:17

    Very interesting to read about power dynamics because it is difficult public sector organisations to let go which is what asset based approaches are about. Letting go also potentially means losing funding and most organisations are not willing to share funding and power which is what working with communities involves. Our website is about encouraging people to find their local community organisations and to use them for services, does the public sector really need to professionalise them and drag them into underfunded contracts with over the top monitoring in order to prove their work?

    • May 6, 2015 15:44

      The issue on organisational sponsorship/investment in this space is very interesting and thanks for raising. I agree there has to be a letting go of power in all shapes and forms. there has to be a shift in the relational aspects of such organisations and local people. I think that as people in local places adopt (knowingly or otherwise) asset based approaches (as we term them) sector organisations – be they Public or Private – become part of the conversation, as they hold assets (of the heart, hand and head) which could/ought to be used for other beneiftis and endeavours – such Orgs’ might cite this as Social Value….
      Your mian piont (as I read it) was on the issue of professionalising or programmatising asset based approaches as another (public) health intervention approach- potentially doing to people…how might we guard agains that? Is it such an unhelpful approach?
      I know of an LA who are investing a sizeable amount in commissioning an Asset Based Community Developement Service to deliver their communities agenda – on one level that’s positive in progressing the approach but on the other hand….

  2. Euan Macleod permalink
    May 11, 2015 13:35

    Great to see much discussion on this. Like comments above I saw it as how to avoid professionalizing the approach so that it was truly driven by the community. the reflection that Simon Rippon et al state above about developments occurring because of a lack of faith in the delivery if public services is I think pretty accurate.
    “And may have occurred due to lack of confidence in communities for established ‘mainstream’ public service delivery.”

    The establishment of the NHS seems to me was based on the concept of developing community resilience and the whole notion of “public service” (see my blog for more on this

    I like the idea of Theory of Change and it looks to me to be pretty similar to an approach called Action Effect Diagram recently published in the BMJ (
    Is there evidence that the development of “asset based approaches” in the community happen more , or are more effective in areas where public services “fail” or do not have the confidence of the people they serve?

    • May 11, 2015 15:46

      Euan, thanks for your comments, as to your point on the adoption of ABA in areas where public sector services fail or people don’t have confidence – now there’s an interesting investigation!
      Are we seeing community action (such as ABAs) in places where for example inequalities are most prevalent? Are Public Sectors such as through Public Health and Health and Wellbeing Boards investing in such approaches in places where the social gradient (to phrase Marmot) is steepest??
      Indeed are we seeing such action and adoption through one methodology – ABCD – or wider ABAs?

  3. oliverescobar permalink
    June 2, 2015 09:05

    I think you’re spot on when you joke about ‘trying to start a conversation about participatory budgeting at your pub on Friday night…’ It may be true that the terminology doesn’t help, although to be fair it was generated by communities involved in the peasants social movement that eventually became the Workers Party which developed PB in Brazil in the late 1990s. So PB’s history is far from a ‘system-led initiative’ in its origins, and instead part of the broader landscape of innovations from the Global South -in the Brazilian case part of the broader ideological legacy of countless community organisers such as Paulo Freire.

    Also, I’m not sure that ‘Assets Based Community Development’ is much better terminology for pub conversations… so I think that your uninformed attack on PB misses the point. I’m not sure why you needed to make that argument to support ABCD.

    In any case, at What Works Scotland we have been having a bit of a debate between guest bloggers reflecting on the ideological heritage and evolving practices of Assets Based Community Development:

    here is a critical take by Akwugo Emejulu

    and here is a rebuttal by Cormac Russell

    • June 2, 2015 09:20

      Great stuff Oliver – I agree with you! I read the Emejulu stuff recently and think they bring a more balanced and nuanced approach, which is rooted in our social policy history and the many battles for equality and justice.This is a useful counterpoint to what can sometimes feel like the evangelism of some proponents of ABCD – would not put Trevor and Simon into that category by the way! Best wishes Mark

  4. June 2, 2015 10:10

    Thanks Oliver and Mark – point taken about both sets of language. Neither is useful in having conversations with local people in local settings. I’m sure we would not use this ‘institutional’ terminology ‘doon the pub’ – or anywhere else for that matter!
    Both Asset-approaches and participatory budgeting have long established histories rooted in community activism and social justice. Our problem is what happens when ‘institutions’ get hold of these ideas and language and appropriate them for their own purposes.

    Jayne, Simon and I are trying to cast the debate wider than Asset Based Community Development – which is a particular approach that Mark quite rightly comments has its ‘purists’. We suggest that ABCD will be one of a number of asset-based approaches we would wish to see used. Developed in the USA, we believe from our practice and research that some of the language and approaches in ABCD needs refinement in the UK. ABCD was not developed in the context of health improvement but is being adopted as a mechanism for addressing wider public health and health inequalities challenges in the UK. We see ABCD as a foundation for locally appropriate and complimentary asset-based working.
    We quote both Lynne Friedli and Akwugo Emejulu in our latest publication, Head, hands and heart for their perceptive criticisms of adopting an ‘uncritical’ asset-based approach.
    The only criticism that I have tried to live up to is being a ‘militant optimist’ – hopefully not an uninformed one! Trevor

    • oliverescobar permalink
      June 2, 2015 13:31

      Thanks a lot for your reply, I think we’re on the same page on this. I also worry about the appropriation of potentially transformative practices by those seeking to protect a status quo that I’m not sure serves something we may broadly call ‘the common good’. Thanks also for sharing about your work, and I didn’t mean to suggest your views are uninformed -it was just about what I perceived as a simplistic attack on PB wholesale. PB like so may other approaches is an umbrella term for myriad practices that are spreading across the world, and I think you’re right we must keep a critical eye on how that gets translated here.


  1. From evangelism to system change? Citizen Led Approaches to Wellbeing | Local Democracy and Health
  2. Pick on someone your own size! Public Health England and ‘Nudge’ | Local Democracy and Health

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: