Asset-based approaches in local authorities: the Oldham experience

Author Dr Carolyn Wilkins OBE is Chief Executive, Oldham Council, Accountable Officer NHS Oldham CCG

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Interest and engagement in asset or strengths-based working has flourished in public services over the last decade. From a relatively specialised area of interest, it now appears as an increasingly central aspect in a broad range of professions from education and youth development, to nursing and social care. It’s also much more commonly seen within the corporate narratives of organisations, particularly local authorities, where it is recognised as crucial to addressing the need for a fundamentally different relationship between people and communities and the institutions that provide public services. All of which seems to endorse the view contained in A Glass Half Full (2010) that the values and principles of asset-based working are replicable.

Certainly in Greater Manchester we have placed strengths-based working as a central principle to the delivery of our ambitions for health and social care and the wider reform of public services. We have an ever-growing library from across the city region of examples of where this approach is being applied. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Oldham is a strong contributor to this agenda. After all, we’re a place only too familiar with the frustrations and consequences of being seen through the lens of deficit and know only too well how much can be missed and ignored.

Oldham’s shared ambition is described through three inter-dependent goals: Thriving Communities, an Inclusive Economy, supported by Cooperative Services. Achieving these goals requires us to understand where we are already strong, and then build out from this understanding. The principles and values of strength-based working shape everything that we are trying to achieve. It is not an approach we simply select for certain projects. It is a fundamental shift in how we think about what we do, and how we design and deliver services and support.

Asset-based approaches are particularly relevant for the toughest to challenges, such as tackling long-term health inequalities or delivering improvements in healthy life expectancy. Working with the strengths of our existing system, with additional support when needed, is driving real change. We have many examples of how working in this way is making a real difference - from the redesign in the way children and young people with special educational needs can be supported to thrive, increasing levels of physical activity and narrowing the gap to the national average on children reaching a good level of development.

Our work so far shows it is really helpful to have a shared framework for Greater Manchester. But the real work takes place in translating these principles into meaningful activity with our communities. In working with such complexity it isn't enough to just simply replicate what has been done in other areas. It is often difficult to get behind the scenes and see what really took place. The success might be the result of multiple false starts, or the product of years of relentless effort with incremental progress. The factors critical to success are often hard to capture in formal evaluations or case study write ups. Therefore, as indicated in A Glass Half Full (2010), specific local solutions that come out of asset-based approaches may not be transferable without change. They rely on community knowledge, engagement and commitment which are rooted in very specific local circumstances.

That is why, in Oldham, we believe our starting point should always be developing a deep understanding of the current reality - for communities and local places, but also for organizations and the systems they operate in. All too often, programmes and services are developed in ways divorced from such knowledge. What assets there are, but also how they are seen and understood, can vary dramatically with different perspectives. For example, a park may be seen as a valued space well used by local people. A different park (or even the same park at different times of the day) might be seen as a place to be avoided. Knowledge of less tangible assets such as social connectedness, levels of trust and distrust, is also crucial. The desire to develop and deepen our understanding is behind the work to build Oldham’s Thriving Communities Index. This maps local assets alongside numerous different data sets, and is under constant review, ensuring we are continually evolving what we understand about our places and communities.

As set out in A Glass Half Full (2010) the label ‘asset’ encompasses a wide variety of different elements including networks, relationships, skills, physical resources as well as the passions and interests that give people energy for change. None of these things are fixed - and their very fluidity is why strengths-based working needs to be ongoing; continually evolving and adapting to shifts in context. It's also important that we don't fall into the trap of only considering the assets of communities and individuals. Assets of anchor organizations and the people connected with them are also significant, not least because a large number of people who work in the delivery of public services also live locally. For example, steps taken by organizations to improve the health and well-being of their workforce are, therefore, also making a contribution to the health and well-being of the local population.

We are exploring how strengths based working becomes our every day approach to doing business. In building our integrated health and care arrangements we are embedding principles of social value so we commission in a manner that recognizes, and works with, the strength already present in the locality and system. Social Prescribing is an important part of our Thriving Communities Programme in Oldham. We know medicines alone are only part of the story. We can improve health and well-being far better by GPs, and others, linking people to a wide variety of activities, groups, agencies and social support. We marked the world’s first Social Prescribing Day in Oldham by commissioning a pioneering three-year Innovation Partnership through a local consortium of voluntary and community organisations. This approach provides the local consortium with the flexibility and agility needed to truly connect and engage with the reality of people’s lives. Rigid specifications that fail to connect to such lived experience frequently also fail to achieve the impact required. In the first seven months of operating almost 300 people have been supported through connections to local activities such as walking groups or coffee mornings. For these early engagers in the service, GP appointments have reduced by over 60% with an over 90% reduction in the attendances at Accident and Emergency.

Greater Manchester (GM) is one of 12 places working with Sport England on a new approach to build healthy, more active communities. The GM Moving plan sets the framework with its shared principles and priorities, and each GM districts has its own local delivery pilot (LDP) underway. In Oldham we are investing in the expertise of voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise bodies. These groups and organisations often already have the trusted relationships and connections in place that are so central to success. This approach also helps builds support for social action, and strengthens local social infrastructure. We’re working in two neighbourhoods in Oldham, with a different approach taken between the two. In one area, there was already a growing network of organizations and relationships and, most importantly, they had already identified health as a priority, with plans in place for growing community facilities and activities. The LDP work therefore is helping them meet their own ambitions. The second locality is starting from a different point, with much less social infrastructure and social capital evident. The focus here is more about catalyzing interest and building networks.

Following a visit to see the work in Oldham, the Sport England CEO said “If we want to inspire people to get active, we have to put ourselves in their shoes and give them what they want, not what we think they need”. Equally importantly he also took away the message “Don’t try and make us more like you”. It is absolutely vital that we focus on ensuring greater diversity of involvement in the design and delivery of public services and programmes. But this diversity must be recognized and valued for the asset it is, not muted or negated by established ways of doing things.

There is much to learn from elsewhere. But learning doesn't mean a simple ‘lift and drop’.This risks missing those crucial success factors that meant the change could, and did take place. Learning also comes from doing. It comes from the effort and commitment needed to develop understanding; from the work to deepen and improve connections; in the building of trust. Working in this way is also about harnessing the power of the unexpected - the alchemy that happens when we commit to principles and values, deeply entwined throughout our own contexts, experiences, ideas and our own rich array of strengths.

COVID-19 postscript

During the extraordinary events of 2020 it has been more important than ever to work in ways which recognise and value the diversity of resources and contribution we have across our communities. There have been so many amazing examples shared across the media of people connecting to their local areas - whether through using local shops or cycling and walking around their communities.

And story after story of people stepping forward to support their neighbours in all kinds of ways. It’s important that we acknowledge the importance of civil society and social infrastructure at all times. And we have an amazing opportunity as we look to what next to hold this in focus.

It matters now. But it mattered before and will continue to matter as we go forward.

There have been many times this year when I’ve been so grateful for the strength and depth of relationships across Oldham’s partner organisations and the genuine commitment to Team Oldham. Never have organisational boundaries been so unimportant. And never has it mattered more to get different perspectives and connections around the (virtual) table.

In dealing with major incidents and emergencies, structure and clarity is important. But it should enhance the existing ways of working - not shut them down. Focusing on contribution not hierarchy and working through networks not just institutions enhances creativity, understanding and insight and has enabled us to deliver against a shared agenda. Our effectiveness has been through collective endeavour and the support we have been able to provide to each other. Through these most testing of times it has been a privilege to be part of the team.