Asset-based approaches in local authorities: the Leeds experience

Lisa Keenan is Enterprise Development Manager at Leeds City Council and Mick Ward is Chief Officer, Transformation and Innovation, Adults and Health at Leeds City Council. This case study is an example of the practical use of asset-based approaches in communities.

Glass half full banner

Ten years on from the important publication of ‘A Glass Half Full’ it is timely to reflect on the progress that has been made in moving our values and assumptions away from deficit-based thinking and services and towards asset-based approaches. We’d like to begin our reflection by going back a little earlier:

This book does say at least two things: first, that health as quality of life, as wholeness unfolding, must be mirrored in the process of undertakings intended to improve health; and that those who would involve others, especially the poor, in the process of healthful change must themselves be involved. The one who would change others must himself be changed."

This quote comes from Nancy Milio talking about her book 9226 Kercheval: The Storefront That Did Not Burn, which describes her experience of community nursing in 1960s Detroit. We’ve started with that quote for a couple of reasons, firstly because of its clear articulation of the link between quality of life and health, and the emphasis on the interdependence of people and community. Secondly, it is a reminder of the rich history of community development that got us to ‘A Glass Half Full’ and wider movements towards Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) and asset-based approaches. But it is the last line: ‘The one who would change others must himself be changed’ that offers the greatest challenge and sets up our reflection on how organisations, funding and systems have moved towards asset-based ways of working.

In Leeds we’ve put significant efforts into proliferating ABCD across the city, arising in Adults and Health within Leeds City Council. Our vision is for everyone in Leeds, including those with care and support needs, to have the opportunity to contribute to, be valued by, and be involved with, where they live and for communities to recognise their assets, forge strong connections with one another and feel able to make the changes they want to see. The assumption is that, given the tools and the opportunity, small groups of local residents can change the things that they believe need changing in their community better than anyone else. We are excited by this way of working and have been amazed by the transformative potential of people coming together to make changes for themselves. In Leeds we are fortunate to have a strong and vibrant third sector with a diverse range of organisations, some of whom have been using asset-based approached for years, whether by name or otherwise. It was from this strong position that we have been able to galvanise further asset-based approaches and the use of ABCD.

Building on existing work, learning from the approaches in ‘A Glass Half Full’ and through some training delivered by acknowledged experts in this area, we started to test out ABCD as a means to support older people to be more connected to where they live. This was first trialled in three Neighbourhood Networks in Leeds back in 2013/15. This was using what we would now call the ‘ABCD framework’: establishing a community builder in the neighbourhood, who identified, enthused and supported community connectors, provided some ‘small sparks’ funding and developed community led/owned asset maps.

Whilst there were challenges, we were confident to build on the success of these trials, and establish three new ABCD sites, known locally as ‘ABCD pathfinders’ in 2017, funded by Leeds City Council (LCC) Adults and Health. The achievements of these pathfinders far exceeded expectations and have shown the transformative potential of people coming together to make changes. We used evidence from the sites to make the case for further funding, importantly this included a contribution from NHS partners, to establish eight more pathfinders in neighbourhoods across the city in 2019.

However, whilst the ABCD sites continue to flourish, we recognise that their reach is still relatively small, when looking at the city as a whole. The vast majority of the Adults and Health funding still sits with traditional providers (those providing supported living, care homes or other specialist services). Therefore we are working with providers to see how they can use asset-based approaches within their organisation. This recognises that a service will have a clear remit to deliver on, (one unlikely to have been decided by the community), but that can still use the principles of connecting people around their interests and seeing the strengths of the people they support. This presents a great opportunity to work with a huge range of organisations in to move towards a more asset-based approach in their day to day work.

We have already seen excellent examples of organisations changing and developing the way they work to be more in line with asset-based approaches. Organisations are increasingly taking a much stronger asset-based approach, looking at how they can support people to be more connected to their communities and to nurture individual’s strengths and gifts. Similarly, there is interest in this approach from other directorates in LCC. This is manifesting itself in areas such as the way Active Lifestyles is reaching into communities to deliver physical activity, or how cultural organisations are looking to be more community/citizen led, or libraries and library staff becoming community assets and community connectors. Children’s Services and schools are also interested in how working in this way can improve children’s attainment by creating space for communities to lead on changes that are important to them, rather than assuming professionals have all of the answers. NHS organisations are looking at how they can apply asset-based approaches within community healthcare services and there is increasing support for the approach from GP practices within the emerging Local Care Partnerships.

Learning from the extensive ABCD work across the city has shown that to make a significant shift towards an asset-based approach requires three things:

  • a framework to deliver ABCD
  • the use of ‘asset-based approaches’ across a wide range of agencies
  • asset-based values are embedded, nurtured and celebrated within individuals, teams and organisations.

However, these promising green shoots should be put in context, in a city the size of Leeds our ABCD pathfinders’ cover just a small part of the city and despite our clear focus on prevention and keeping people well, over-stretched budgets are still heavily tipped towards service based solutions. Unsurprisingly, in implementing an approach as radical (or simple) as ABCD we have met (and learnt from) significant challenges. It is in recognising these challenges, we understand the extent of the cultural shift required.

1. ‘We already do that!’

The shift to asset-based approaches presents a challenge to all sectors, not just councils and the NHS, but also third sector organisations. ABCD asks that we move beyond co- production, to communities being in the lead, making changes for themselves and finding solutions beyond services. If we are truly to work in asset-based ways across health and social care (and beyond), then we need to redefine our relationships with communities. It is understandable then, that people and organisations may feel reluctant to make these significant changes. Some organisations when discussing ABCD claim to be doing so already, and therefore do not need to change. And, whilst they are often doing some very good work, it is not often ABCD.

Making it work for all (and recognising where it doesn’t)

Whilst a strength of ABCD is that communities themselves identify issues and therefore solutions, we recognise that these communities may not always be inclusive for all. This is particularly relevant for Adults and Health in terms of those with care and support needs. Whilst there is evidence in Leeds that ABCD work has worked particularly well in regard to older people and to people with mental health needs, so far the same cannot be said of people with a learning disability or a significant physical or sensory impairment. We also know from research that people with a long-term condition or regular ill health are less likely to volunteer (though less is known re informal community contributions). We also recognise that ABCD is not an alternative to direct provision of personal care, medical support and other higher need interventions, and it would be naive to think it was. However, it is also essential that everyone is recognised as a valuable member of the community and we are focusing work to support this.

Importance of still funding existing services

We recognise the importance of the broad range of services in the world of health and wellbeing, and that they will need to continue to be funded alongside ABCD work. This will continue to be challenging in the current financial climate. However, funding for ABCD is relatively small compared to the cost of these core services and is prioritised within Adults and Health.

Traditional Evaluation and Reporting

Despite much talk of a move to focusing on outcomes, monitoring is often still focused on outputs and numbers. As noted, ‘evaluating an ABCD process requires a move away from traditional top down summative and formative evaluation processes and towards a developmental and emancipatory learning process’ Relationships are the primary currency of community work, not data or money. Hence the learning process will be one that values what goes on between people, not what goes on within them as disaggregated individuals. In addition, the data collected across statutory services is almost exclusively deficit-based, it maps deprivation, poor outcomes and health inequalities. Data remains important, however they are just part of the picture and need to be counterbalanced with the richness of communities. It is not about simply counting numbers of people who show up, but about nurturing and celebrating participation and contributions that strengthen community life, providing those connections that we know are so valuable.

Changing attitudes, values and culture can be challenging and takes a long time. Even ten years after the publication of ‘A Glass Half-Full’, there is still much to do. We may not yet be changed, but the journey is changing us. We’re just at the beginning of re-imagining how services and support could look if we are to truly support communities to come together, connect and take the lead. We’ll end as we began with Nancy Milio talking about the transformative impact of her community development work in Detroit fifty years ago:

I was changed more than any of them […] and the things that I see as important now, are the things that I learned through that experience."