The idea of the asset-based area (ABA)

Featured article - 16 January 2020
By Alex Fox and Clenton Farquharson

Head-shot of the author, Alex Fox and Clenton Farquharson

The idea of the Asset-Based Area (ABA) started life as a blog and was co-produced with input from many people and organisations working in asset-based ways, from the Think Local Act Personal national network for practitioners and commissioners who share an interested in Building Community Capacity. So many areas are doing some community building or transformational stuff, but so few are trying to turn their community initiatives into core business. There is not enough ambition, partly because it’s hard to get past the apparent paradox that the good stuff often feels small and personal, whilst the challenges faced by public services feel huge.

We need whole areas to take up the challenge of becoming asset-based, resetting their relationships with local citizens, as Wigan council and a few others have attempted, with local priorities defined and put into a community plan which is built on local knowledge. So we tried to distil down how an area can become asset-based in everything it does from strategy down to the grassroots, into ten actions, starting with mapping your local assets, and including sharing power with people who are usually excluded, and building a diverse range of community approaches which are now gathered in an online catalogue.

Three years after the original thinking, we are developing the ABA model in more detail through the Social Care Innovation network, and revisiting this as a work in progress as we do. We’ve grouped the ten actions into three:

  • Co-production, partnership and power sharing: building & valuing community capacity and community organisations, tackling inequalities
  • A strategic approach: a clear story translated into shared outcomes, asset-based commissioning, grant-giving, and provider market development
  • Diversifying workforces & building local enterprise: investing in volunteers & social entrepreneurs, valuing lived experience, growing mutuals & co-ops

We are also taking this opportunity to look at where the model needs improving – and as ever we want this to be a joint effort so your views are very welcome.

One key area that the model does not say enough about is self-directed support. Self-directed support, where people take charge of their own care and support packages, often through using a direct payment or another form of personal budget, has been under pressure in many areas, as cuts-hit areas have tried to put more and more rules around how people can spend state resources. This is self-defeating: SDS results in better health, wellbeing and less dependence on formal services when people are free to be creative, not choosing familiar packages from a small menu. For people to be creative with their own support, asset-based (or strengths-based) thinking needs to be built into assessment and planning processes which trust and empower people. But this isn’t enough: people also need to be able to connect with others, to pool resources and to start to influence, shape (and even in some cases, own) the range of provider organisations in their local area. In asset-based organisations, workers will feel more empowered, but this empowerment will be based on their greater diversity, including people with lived experience, who are focused on facilitating, enabling and empowering rather than delivering.

The best people to help people who use support to make creative choices are other people who have their own experience of using and shaping support. So local areas need to invest in user-led organisations. A question that can be asked of every part of the assessment, planning, review and commissioning system is, Could a community organisation do this better than us? Or could we do this better in partnership with a community organisation? Linking to a wider range of organisations including local enterprises can also build the local economy.

We also think there is much more to do to think about the Asset Based Area model from a rights perspective, which includes thinking about the role that basic rights issues such as discrimination and poverty play in shaping how people related to each other and to the local state and services. This means seeking out people who wouldn’t normally get involved and meeting them on their terms, thinking about how services and the way they are delivered impacts on social justice.

If we want others to commit to change, then we need to commit first. We will be very grateful for your ideas and to anyone who wants to share in leading these changes with us, as we try to embed this way of thinking into many more local areas.

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