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What next for strengths-based areas?

Report from the Social Care Institute for Excellence, Mayday Trust and Think Local Act Personal.

Published: November 2022

In 2017, Think Local Act Personal (TLAP) published The asset-based area, a briefing paper written by Alex Fox, formerly Chief Executive of Shared Lives Plus and now Chief Executive of Mayday Trust, which described 10 features of an ‘asset-based area’ necessary for developing strong communities and sustainable public services. Strengths and asset-based approaches in social care focus on what individuals and communities have and how they can work together, rather than on what individuals don’t have or can’t do.

A strengths-based approach to care, support and inclusion says let’s look first at what people can do with their skills and their resources – and what can the people around them do in their relationships and their communities. People need to be seen as more than just their care needs – they need to be experts and in charge of their own lives.

Alex Fox, Chief Executive, Mayday Trust

In 2019, as a result of the work of the Social Care Innovation Network – a Department for Health and Social Care funded network to explore ways to grow innovation – the original 10 actions in ‘The asset-based area’ briefing paper were updated to become 10 broad commitments, which were published in The asset-based area 2.0. The paper looked at how approaches to asset-based working had evolved during the pandemic, including the need for successful areas to start with a clear story about change with input and ownership from a broad range of agencies and communities. The paper explored how to put that vision into practice, through co-designing local plans, particularly with the people who rely on services most, and with those who are most likely to be excluded from services and communities. The paper also explored how a culture change is needed, and suggests the creation of a culture in which people can be fully present and human, with systems designed to keep people, rather than organisations, in control.

This paper adopts the language of strengths-based working (see SCIE pages on strengths-based approaches for more information) which is a closely-related concept, and builds on that work. This paper is both an update on our thinking about strengths-based areas, and a toolkit – it enables you to ask questions about where the area you work is in relation to strengths-based ways of working. This briefing will be of interest to all of those working in the wider public sector including elected members, Adult Social Care, those involved in developing Integrated Care Systems and Place-based arrangements for planning integrated health and care, Public Health and Housing colleagues, Local Authority, GP practices, Voluntary and Community Sector Enterprise colleagues, User-Led Organisations, and all key national agencies.

Understanding your starting point

In this section of the paper we discuss in more detail the key features of a strengths-based area, and ask you – working with your colleagues – where you are in relation to these features.

Strengths-based areas need to:

  1. Co-design a new vision and co-produce a plan
  2. Invest in simple and human support approaches
  3. Use their money and power intentionally and with a strong focus on reducing inequality
  4. Co-produce a shared picture of what good looks like and user-friendly ways to track its achievement.

Where are areas now?

The table below outlines where many areas are now in relation to the above four areas of change, and where they could aim to get to. Which statements apply to your area?

Areas of changeWhere many areas are nowStrengths-based areas
1. Vision and planningWe serve our customers and people who use services.

We support people with specific problems or conditions. We are the leaders of our area.
We involve all citizens in developing a shared story about the place we want to live in and how to get there, without leaving anyone out.

We plan and organise in places people feel they belong to, with community organisations.
2. Simple and human supportOur team of experts and the people who use our services come from different communities or backgrounds.

We have tightly managed roles within complex hierarchies.
We make systems and services simple and people-shaped, with early action the norm.

We create support roles around building strengths-based relationships.
3. Using our money and powerWe set the agenda, deploy our expertise, and manage stakeholders and providers.

There are few ways for people who use support to influence us.
We map our assets. Working with people who use services and with communities who are often excluded, we co-commission a wide range of local enterprises.

We share power, resources and risks.
4. Deciding what good looks like and tracking itWe measure outputs and task volumes more than outcomes and impact.

Different parts of the system work to different goals and it is hard to share data.
We use shared measures of health, wellbeing, resilience and equality. People own their own data.

We build learning into everything, celebrating success and changing what doesn’t work.

Creating a baseline

Leaders of an area aiming to become strengths-based could ask themselves and their stakeholders to identify a baseline for becoming a strengths-based area, and actions to build on current strengths whilst addressing gaps and challenges. Below are suggested questions. We encourage you to develop actions to accompany each question:

Vision and planning

  • Who sets and tells the story of this area and our goals?
  • Who makes decisions, shares responsibilities?
  • Who is supported to develop as leaders?
  • Who do council and statutory leaders share power and responsibility with?
  • Are voluntary, community and equalities groups seen as stakeholders to be managed, or planning partners?
  • Does the leadership team reflect the communities it serves?
  • How are we developing a more diverse pool of leaders from our communities?

Simple and human support

  • What kinds of support roles do we create?
  • Are they time-pressured, low-trust/high-control roles measured on throughput?
  • Or high-trust/high-autonomy roles measured on outcomes and impact?
  • Does the diversity of our workforce represent the community at every level, including people with experience of using the services we offer?
  • Do we use values-led recruitment? Are assessment, planning and review systems simple and humanising?
  • Are we using commissioning power to increase the proportion of community-based support and decrease proportion of crisis and building-based support?

Using our money and power

  • Do we map and value assets of all kinds?
  • Do we co-commission with people who use services, under-served communities and their organisations, and providers?
  • What kind of marketplace of local providers, including not-for-profit and user-led organisations, have we built?
  • Who do we co-commission with and does this feed into our equalities goals?
  • Do we commission for impact and for place-based outcomes?
  • How do we understand and value the area’s full range of community and enterprise assets?

Deciding what good looks like and tracking it

  • Do we have shared measures of health, wellbeing, resilience and equality?
  • Do people own their own data?
  • Are we a learning organisation?
  • Do our success measures reflect our vision?
  • Are we sharing measures which cover health, wellbeing and equalities across service boundaries?
  • How do we put people who use services and families in charge of their data and outcomes?
  • Do we use a recognised model (such as Human Learning Systems) to become a learning organisation?

Co-producing a vision that can be seen in our actions

Lots of areas have a strategic commitment to strengths-based working and to linked concepts like personalisation, self-directed support, asset-based community development, prevention and early intervention. But it is rarer to find whole area plans that translate those aspirations into widespread changes, which people experience at the frontline of services and in communities. One way to test for a strengths-based approach is to consider what kinds of behaviours are typical at the leadership, support service, and citizen levels. Behavioural changes amongst one of those groups is usually contingent on changes amongst the others, so the table below shows the links across the three groups:

People with powerWorkers and volunteersCitizens
We show empathy and humanity, and feel valued.We show empathy and humanity, and feel valued.We show empathy and humanity, and feel valued.
We are open to change and being led. We are present in our community.We work alongside (not for) citizens, connecting ourselves and others.We are active – doing and starting stuff in the community, and we are well-connected with others.
We are happy in our roles, creating healthy, learning workplaces.We are happy in our roles and help people to live good lives.We pursue good lives and have positive relationships.
We aim to achieve wellbeing and resilience. We measure good and bad impacts of our work.We are confident we do what matters to people (not the system), showing humility and courage at the right times.We define the lives we want to live and the roles we want supporters to play. We know we can feedback and take the lead.
We build systems and services that fit with people’s individual and family lives.We can work with individuals, carers or whole-families (or whole-households).We’re in control of our lives, support plans and personal info. We make choices.
We share our resources, responsibility and power.We support people to make choices and take risks.We share ownership of our neighbourhood and its resources.

A vision for a strengths-based area, needs to be coproduced with people who draw on care and support and carers. Co-production is also a central feature of strengths-based ways of working.

Co-production sets out a way of working where professionals and those who draw on services or those who are impacted by a decision, work in equal partnership to develop services or make decisions to meet people’s needs. Increasingly, the values of co-production are being viewed as a way of developing services or agreeing decisions jointly, that are innovative in meeting people’s needs.

Studies point to the following outcomes from co-production for those who draw on services, including:

  • increased self-confidence, self-esteem and sense of empowerment
  • better health and wellbeing
  • increased engagement and trust
  • higher levels of satisfaction with, and awareness of, services.

Where is your area on co-production?

Where is your area on co-production? Use the statements below to assess where you think your area is.

Statements for reflection

  • Leaders set expectations that people are involved in the design, commissioning, delivery and evaluation of services.
  • We consistently involve people with lived experience and carers as equal partners in planning their care and support.
  • There are co-production arrangements such as co-production panels and forums in place to give people a voice in how strategic decisions about care and support are taken.
  • People with lived experience are involved in providing staff development and training in strengths-based approaches.

Simple and human support

The ‘Rainbow’ of community-based approaches is a growing catalogue of organisations that are strengths-based, community-focused and co-produced. The Rainbow is designed to show that it is possible to create a strengths-based, community-rooted support system across the full range of services, from crisis (inner ring) to prevention and whole-community (outer ring). It aims to guide commissioning decisions through illustrating similar kinds of services from which commissioners may want to choose one model, and different kinds of services that are likely to complement each other through offering support to a different group in the community.

The strengths-based challenge for support organisations and the systems around them can be thought of as: what kind of relationship do we want people to have when someone seeking support encounters someone offering support?

At present we offer many people who have long, complex support journeys a succession of brief, highly-boundaried professional-client transactions, often with professionals the individual has not chosen. A strengths-based approach requires a smaller number of deeper, longer-lasting, and more reciprocal and chosen relationships wherever possible. This is because the professional/client transaction is inherently deficit-generating. It is not possible to ‘assess’ someone’s strengths, particularly where that person has been defined repeatedly by their labels or deficits. Strengths emerge through deeper and more balanced relationships.

Strengths-based work in context

Area of workTraditional support workStrengths-based, person-led work
Initial meetingAppointment to attend at an office or centre.
Eligibility and risk assessment.
Support planning based on little knowledge.
Meet somewhere safe and known for person and coach.
Get to know each other.
Build a trusting relationship.
Offering supportSupport based on service’s priorities.
Timetable and time limits set by service.
Person defines and can change their goals.
Broker opportunities and personal budgets.
Build community connections.
When services don’t workFocus on engagement and compliance.
Manage ‘challenging’ behaviour.
Defend service against ‘reputational risk’.
Identify what would work better.
Support person to challenge and change what doesn’t work.
Ending supportSignposting to other services.
Goal is to close case.
Few other relationships when support ends.
Person can pause and vary level of support.
Person chooses how to end support.
Service feels less important as life gets fuller.

Please reflect on the areas described above. We encourage you develop some actions and changes to become more strengths-based, using the questions below.

Initial meeting

  • Referral process and experience?
  • Use of deficit-focused information?
  • Focus on relationship-building first?

Offering support

  • Ability of individual and worker to set own goals?
  • Flexibility of timetable and time limits?
  • Community brokerage and development?
  • Easy personal budget access?

When services don’t work

  • How do we see ‘engagement’ and ‘compliance’?
  • People supported to challenge what’s not working?
  • How are views and learning fed back to change our services when things don’t work?
  • Does our organisational learning approach highlight and change support inequalities?

Ending support

  • Person’s choice about pauses and endings?
  • Do they build their support networks before ending?
  • Do people tend to cycle back into crisis or service support?

Strengths-based work in context

These kinds of strengths-based services are most easily delivered within organisations that are re-orientating themselves to be strengths-based in all of their work. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and National Council Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) report, ‘Meeting as equals’ set out a whole-organisation model for charities and other provider organisations to embed strengths-based thinking across every aspect of their work, structures and culture:

Area of workWhere many organisations are nowStrengths-based, person-led organisations
Supporting peopleWe serve our beneficiaries, customers or the people who use our services.
We support people with specific problems or conditions.
We are leaders.
We enable each individual to choose and shape their support.
We meet people as equals.
We are allies.
Recruitment, induction and managementOur team of experts and the people who use our services come from different communities or backgrounds.
We have tightly managed roles within hierarchies.
People with lived experience and from local communities volunteer, work and lead.
Workers have high levels of autonomy.
PlanningWe set the agenda, deploy our expertise and manage stakeholders.
There are few ways for people who use support to influence us.
We find and develop leaders and share our platforms, networks and power.
We are a learning organisation.
GovernanceWe have limited accountability to beneficiaries and few ‘user representatives’.We invest in citizens’ capacity to lead us at every level, from the ground up.
FundraisingWe raise funds for our beneficiaries with hard-hitting campaigns about their problems.Fundraising messages co-designed and delivered by people with lived experience.
Influencing and partnershipsWe have unsustainable contracts and can’t influence commissioning.We seek co-commission with those who share our aims.
We can say ‘no’.
Source: Mayday Trust 2022

Using our money and power

In traditional public services, power tends to be concentrated in the hands of a small number of senior leaders, who work through a formal hierarchy to direct changes. For strengths-based areas, a different kind of leadership is required – one that is based on sharing rather than hoarding power, working collaboratively, rather than competing or putting one’s own organisation, department or team first.

In SCIE, this is often referred to as ‘strengths-based leadership’. Traditional leadership models place onus on the importance of a ‘charismatic’ leader who can influence change through command and control and seeks to ‘solve’ problems. Strengths-based leadership emphasises the importance of compassion, recognising and building on people’s strengths and gifts, and working in collaboration with others to identify the best way forward.

Key features of strengths-based leadership include:

  • Engaging and involving people with lived experience, carers, frontline staff, and managers in early conversations about change and valuing their vision, ideas and opinions when developing any new model of care.
  • Investing time, both formally and informally, in building productive relationships with leaders across partner agencies and organisations, and developing joint priorities and plans.
  • Working with partners to map initiatives and programmes across the local area to minimise duplication and develop a joined-up approach to achieving better outcomes for communities.
  • Developing leadership capabilities of citizens and encouraging them to become formal leaders and representatives for their communities.

Providing staff with a broad framework and key principles, whilst trusting them to use their professional knowledge and practice to find creative solutions, taking ownership of decision-making and designing and delivering innovations co-designed with people at the front line.

Co-produce a shared picture of what good looks like and user-friendly ways to track its achievement

Ensuring that all of those leading the shift towards strength-based areas are clear about how impact is being measured, and taking the time to celebrate successes, are both critical to sustaining impact.

This requires leaders in local areas to work with people who draw on care and support, carers, staff and partners to co-produce a vision for what good looks. This is what South Tyneside Council did when it created, with input from local people, a ‘tree’ that described a vision of what good looks like for them.

Leaders must ensure that performance frameworks seek quantitative and qualitative data that illustrates impact in terms of promoting independence and preventative action; the data must also support investment in those interventions, opportunities and assets that are shown to make a positive difference.

In developing these measures, it can be helpful to ask yourselves:

  • What difference are we making to the lives of people we support?
  • What is the contribution of the changes we are making to the achievement of these outcomes?
  • How will we know we have succeeded?

Once in place, a clear framework and approach to monitoring and evaluating impact can ensure that local authorities and their partners can continue to make progress towards becoming strengths-based places.

Find out more

Alex Fox OBE

This paper was originally drafted for SCIE, TLAP and Mayday Trust by Alex Fox OBE, chief executive of Mayday Trust . Follow Alex Fox on Twitter @alexfoxshared.

Mayday Trust

Mayday hosts the New System Alliance where you can learn and share more about strengths-based working.

Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE)

SCIE is sector leading in its support to adult social care services to embed strengths-based practice. We believe the role of social care practitioners needs to modernise and become more productive and effective.

We do this by identifying unproductive activities which don’t bring value, exploring what is working well and how we build on it, and working collaboratively with practitioners to re-design solutions.

Our team combines expertise in practice development, research and analysis, and change management and our work is underpinned by SCIE’s in-depth knowledge of evidenced-based social care policy and national good practice.

To find out more about strengths-based working and how SCIE can help transform local government care and support, please visit Practice with impact

Think Local Act Personal (TLAP)

TLAP is a national partnership of more than 50 organisations committed to transforming health and care through personalisation and community-based support.

The partnership spans central and local government, social care providers, the NHS, and the voluntary and community sector as well as people with lived experience, through the National Co-production Advisory Group (NCAG). TLAP is hosted by partner organisation, Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE).

What next for strengths-based areas?