Asking the right questions about asset-based development

A changed relationship between communities and public sector organisations is seen as vital to the future of services. But why do many organisations struggle to get asset-based approaches off the ground, asks Fiona Weir

Asset-based approaches are here to stay in health, care and other public services. Chapter two of the NHS Five Year Forward View makes clear that organisations must change relationships with patients and communities, in ways that see people as assets and co-creators of health.

But trusts, clinical commissioning groups, service providers and councils all have some way to go. I suggest that asset-based approaches in communities and with individual patients must start with asset-based workforce development; and that sometimes, if asset-based development is not happening as expected, an organisation needs to change its relationships with its workforce too, and consider, Are we asking the right questions about asset-based development?

For while there’s no significant disagreement that asset-based approaches are the way to achieve the best outcomes for individuals and communities, and for public service organisations too, and fantastic examples of it working in practice, from shared lives schemes, to social prescribing services and self-care, asset-based development is still not happening systematically. Why are asset-based approaches still more talked about than used?

There are some obvious answers: lack of money, time, understanding and training. Budget pressures are making it hard for public sector organisations to prioritise anything that does not produce immediate or very rapid savings.

But there are some subtler reasons, which are rooted in the psychology of organisations and the people working within them, often hidden and therefore harder to tackle. It’s always useful to ask questions when development isn’t happening as expected, and here are some of mine.

Here’s some questions public sector organisations could ask themselves:

What underpinning attitudes and beliefs get in the way of asset-based development?

  1. Ambivalence. Ironically, budget pressures are both a reason that asset-based approaches seem too difficult to try, and also reason for their popularity. Public sector leaders know that they do not have the money to do everything they did before, so the idea of getting more people to do more is appealing and necessary. But this gives rise to complex feelings, including guilt and questioning of motives: managers ask ‘Are we introducing asset-based approaches because we believe in them, or because we need to save money?’. And staff ask ‘Are asset-based approaches just a sneaky way of leaving communities without enough support?’ This ambivalence stops organisations from genuinely adopting asset-based approaches, or slows them for months or years until questions are resolved.
  2. Anxiety brought by changing notions of ‘public service’: Most people in the public sector are committed to ‘public service’. Asset-based approaches don’t always come easily to staff trained and expected to help, avoid risks, care for and protect people. ‘Looking after’ people can feel safer and more familiar than enabling people to look after themselves. Doing things for people can feel kinder than empowering them to do things for themselves. Staff asked to adopt asset-based approaches often go through a process of ‘letting go’. A useful question for leaders planning change can be ‘What positive or well-intentioned emotions are stopping our workforce from using asset-based approaches?’
  3. Failure to treat staff as assets: This is a hidden issue that I do not see acknowledged. In organisations where there is not much progress to asset-based approaches, it seems this is sometimes because of the way staff are being treated. We can revisit the principles of asset-based development, and sometimes see that staff are expected to apply these principles in their work, without ever actually experiencing them themselves. Organisations need to ask, ‘Are we taking an asset-based approach to developing our staff?’

What other questions can public sector leaders and managers usefully ask?

  1. People: We are committed to people-powered change, but do we recognise that staff and managers are ‘people’ too? Do we recognise that health workers are also patients, and that public sector staff use and pay for public services, as well as providing them? Do we know how many of our staff also live in our local communities or use our services? What extra knowledge or commitment does that bring to our organisation?
  2. Development: Do we recognise how staff are affected by public service changes? Are we supporting them with change, so that they can more effectively support communities and service users? Are we involving staff in planning for changes that affect them, especially if we want them to involve communities? How can we grow the skills and the commitment of staff and translate that into growing the skills and the commitment of communities?
  3. Passion: Do we see passion as an asset? Do we see it as complementing hard-headed planning, or threatening it? Are we asking our staff as well as communities and service users ‘What do you care enough about to change?’ How can we harness passion and commitment?
  4. Relationships: Are we investing in building relationships, in every part of the system and a cross the system too? Are we aware that every neglected relationship is an opportunity lost or put at risk? Do we know where relationships are weakest and strongest, both inside and outside our organisation? Are we making the most of front line workers’ fantastic relationships with communities? If you are a manager, ask yourself ‘Do I know my team and where each person can make the biggest impact?’ If you’re a commissioner, ask ‘Who else needs to be round the table with me to make the best decisions?’ and ‘Am I investing in relationships that strengthen commissioning?’
  5. Power: Do we know who is making the decisions, who has the money, who has the time, who has the knowledge? Are we recognising and acknowledging where staff and managers feel they have power, and where they feel powerless?
  6. Assets: Are we focused on ‘what’s strong not what’s wrong’ in our workforce? Is our workforce development strengths-based? Are we giving messages – deliberately or unintentionally – that staff or managers are a problem or barrier to change? How can we better give staff and managers the message they are part of the solution, not the problem? If we use external consultants, will we create the impression that our own people aren’t up to the job, and if so, how can we counter-balance this? How can we use the skills and knowledge we already have in-house? Are we making the most of workforce assets? Does our leadership or management act as if staff are not important? Does this reveal or suggest that they privately think communities aren’t very important either? Are we sure?!


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