ABCD - Asset Based Community Development (Leeds)

Featured article - 10 August 2015
By Mick Ward, Head of Commissioning, Adult Social Care, Leeds City Council

Head-shot of the author, Mick Ward, Head of Commissioning, Adult Social Care, Leeds City Council

Well it was good to start a senior management team workshop recently with the classic Jackson 5 track, and whist it didn’t quite get the Chief Executive Tom Riordan (twitter: @tomriordan) boogieing, he did follow it with an impassioned talk about the importance of an ABCD approach for Councils and for the communities we serve So ABCD – Asset Based Community Development – is it just the new kid on the block, the new buzz phrase? Or, as I suggest, something whose time has come and which can make a fundamental difference to how we all work and the impact we can make, whilst crucially being an incredibly cost effective approach. For a start, it’s not new of course. I was lucky enough to go to the ABCD festival this year, which in effect was a twenty year anniversary and also anyone who remembers good old fashioned community work in the 70s will know the approach, if not the language. However, my ABCD journey really began just a few years ago when in Leeds, as part of our priority of tackling loneliness in older people, we started using a more formal ABCD approach in a few communities.

This was part of a European funded project – which locally was known as SeNs Leeds. The ABCD approach uses three key building blocks – a community builder, community connectors and a small sparks fund. The community builder is a person within an existing, trusted organisation that is based and operates at a neighbourhood level. In Leeds we worked in three very different communities using one of Leeds’s fantastic 37 Neighbourhood Networks as the Community Builder - (The 3 Networks were: Middleton Elderly Aid, Action for Gipton Elderly and Farsley Live at Home Scheme ). Their role was to find ‘Community Connectors’ – people who were just well known in the community, or had a natural talent for getting people together. Finally, a ‘Small Sparks’ fund was established in each area to provide a small amount of funding to facilitate groups of three or more people getting together in their neighbourhood – although it is worth noting that the grants were often not required as people were usually able to source what they needed through their own networks.

It is best explained (as is most of ABCD) by a couple of stories. In the Middleton neighbourhood they found Robin Silverwood, a retired parks attendant, and a keen whittler. Robin now leads groups of men in the area on walks to identify appropriate wood, they then go to his garden shed, or local community facility, where he teaches them to carve these into walking sticks which are then in turn shared with local older people. In Harehills, local poet Michelle Scally Clarke set up workshops for women from UK, Pakistan and Afghanistan to come together to produce moving and insightful poems, which they shared in the final week of the project to a small audience. Some of the poetry was written onto tie-dyed fabric and will be displayed at community events in and around the Harehills area. The group intends to visit care homes in the area to share their work with groups that find it difficult to attend events in the community. These stories go on and on and they have had such an impact that several of the Neighbourhood Networks are talking about adopting this approach as they have seen first-hand the approach can see how.

ABCD is more than just setting up a few groups, it is about a basic shift in thinking – moving away from a deficit model – what is wrong with a community – to an asset model – what does a community have? As John McKnight, one of the architects of ABCD) says: ‘You cannot know what a person or a community needs, until you first know what it has ’. And crucially, it is what it already has that can be harnessed to resolve the areas where there are problems.

We are now building up this approach not just in social care, but across the Council, hence the workshop for the leadership team. What we have quickly learnt is that you can’t ‘project manage’ ABCD, nor can you do it through ‘procurement’ (although I do think you can commission it – but that’s for a different blog). However, we are increasingly finding a few ‘rules’ that do help develop ABCD:

  • To put a spot light on what is good (though not necessarily replicate) – locally in particular, but also learning from elsewhere
  • To take every chance to proliferate the work, but not try to ‘scale up’ or to ‘industrialise’
  • To work with individuals and communities to turn complainers into the producers of solutions
  • To recognise it’s a relational activity (not a project or procurement approach) and to release staff just to go spend time with people

It’s also crucial to identify:

  • What can communities do with some assistance?
  • What can communities co-produce/influence others to do?
  • What can communities (geographical or of interest) uniquely do best?

We are currently using these as a basis to form a charter on ABCD, initially for the local authority to adopt and sign up to, and from there our partners. Of course communities themselves need no charter, just a reminder that the glass is half full and not half empty!

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