The asset-based area
Alex Fox, CEO of Shared Lives Plus , 21 July, 2016

In an age of austerity, a great deal of time is necessarily spent on identifying what councils and the NHS can no longer do. But austerity makes it vital that we are also clear on what they can do. The service industry model of public services, where the NHS has patients and councils have customers, is now financially as well as philosophically bankrupt. Increasingly, we need to establish long-term relationships between professionals and people who have long term and lifelong conditions and support needs. Those relationships will be partnerships in which both parties share resources, knowledge and responsibility, or they will fail.

Re-thinking public services in this can draw on decades of learning from the ‘Asset-Based Community Development’ field. An asset- or capabilities-based approach means looking for what people and communities can or could do, not just at what they are not currently able or willing to do. So an asset-based council has no customers, only citizens. It has no providers, only partners. It is responsive to need, but looks always for capability and potential. It is confident in the things it can do and the difference its people’s skills and expertise can make, but it has the humility to recognise what it cannot do: fix people or communities.

This approach first requires that the statutory and voluntary bodies in an area have a living map of their area’s resources which covers the whole range of assets: state and private money but also social action, community groups and charities, social enterprises, buildings and land. That asset assessment should be based upon identifiable neighbourhoods and communities rather than administrative boundaries, and should complement the strategic needs assessment which each area already produces.

All services in the area will be co-designed with local people not just to be a good fit for their needs, but also to provide them with the tools they need to self-care and build resilience. A key test of this is whether every service aims to help people make and keep connections with their friends, neighbours and family and avoids weakening those connections wherever possible. A service can only do that if they see family carers as partners who can access information, back-up and breaks. Where services are commissioned, an asset-focused commissioner will always use the Social Value Act to ensure this happens and that services always develop volunteering and social action alongside paid roles.

Asset-based areas recognise the value of local businesses, including through helping start-ups and micro-scale enterprises to offer support to people who purchase their own support or use Direct Payments. Rather than seeing the private or statutory sectors as always ‘best’, planners use the Localism Act and other tools to maximise local ownership and roots for all its partner organisations. A key goal of this is to grow the number of people with lived experience who are employed in support roles, not just engaged in peer support programmes.

Asset-based planning will ensure that early interventions are resourced, but even where people have significant support needs, models such as Shared Lives will be preferred for their twin focus on regulated care and family or community life. People need friends and a place to belong, just as much as they need good, safe support.

Is it feasible to move to asset-based thinking when resources are hitting rock bottom? Is it feasible not to?

Alex Fox is CEO of Shared Lives Plus ( the UK network for Shared Lives and Homeshare.