Professor Bob Hudson explores the idea of an asset approach to community building and how it ties in with the concept of the Big Society but says that its development should not be seen as a way of cost cutting
Authors: Jane Foot and Trevor Hopkins. Publisher: Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA), 2010. Free download
Objectives and Methodology
This report scopes the idea and practical implications of an “asset approach” to health and well-being. An “asset” is defined as any factor or resource which enhances the ability of individuals, communities and populations to maintain and sustain health and well-being. These assets can operate at the level of the individual, family or community as protective and promoting factors to buffer against life’s stresses.
The asset approach, it is said, values the capacity, skills, knowledge, connections and potential in a community. It doesn’t only see the problems that need fixing and the gaps that need filling. In an asset approach, therefore, the glass is half full rather than half empty.
This is a scoping paper rather than an empirical study. It is not seeking to evaluate any particular project or programme; rather it gathers evidence and experiences from a range of people in a variety of ways, including a seminar event, research interviews and contributed examples from the UK and abroad.
It is therefore largely a precursor to practice development rather than a consequence of policy intervention – a way of generating and shaping ideas through literature review and dialogue.
The first task was to refine understandings and definitions of the asset approach. It is said that an asset is any of the following:
● The practical skills, capacity and knowledge of local residents.
● The passions and interests of local residents that give them energy for change.
● The networks and connections – known as “social capital” – in a community, including friendships and neighbourliness.
● The effectiveness of local community and voluntary associations.
● The resources of public, private and third sector organisations that are available to support a community.
● The physical and economic resources of a place that enhance well-being.
Why develop an asset approach?
The paper sees the case as resting on the negative (half empty) aspects of the dominant “deficit model” as compared with the positive (half full) features of the alternative asset approach. These are set out in the box below.
The asset approach
The asset approach is a complex undertaking and requires a capacity to work across traditional professional and organisational silos. However, these are big ideological and policy sweeps and it is far from certain exactly how they would impact upon the way in which business is currently organised and undertaken.
The report is clear that the first requirement would be cultural – a shift in attitudes and values, and an understanding of the limitations of a deficit way of seeing the world. As the experience of implementing personalisation has shown, this indispensable first step can be far more difficult than organisational and process re-structuring.
The authors emphasise that the asset approach is not an alternative to effective and properly funded services: “It is not a no-cost or a money-saving option… the aim is to achieve a better balance between service delivery and community-building”. Many communities, it is said, will need an initial investment in community development to strengthen and support local networks and associations, and it will take time to build up local confidence and a sense of empowerment.
Needs, it is argued, should distinguish between those that can be met by family and friends, those best met through co-operation between services and communities, and those that can only be delivered through services. This will not happen naturally – it will need to be mapped, planned and commissioned.
Finally, the report calls for an improved empirical base. Key assets such as connectedness, social capital and relationships are difficult to map and measure. Most data is collected at population or individual level, “not at the level of an interactive and evolving community”, and gathering such data will be complex and costly. The appendices to the report describe some possible approaches to developing the evidence base.
There is vast literature on such concepts as community, neighbourhood and more recently social capital, yet these remain elusive and ill-defined notions. Certainly they are all central to the Putting People First quadrants that form the basis of personalisation in England – choice and control, prevention, universal services and social capital itself.
Regarding the social capital quadrant, the Department of Health has already established a network of 20 councils that are actively building capacity in their communities. Other policy programmes in recent years, such as community cohesion and neighbourhood policing, also appear to fit well with the asset-based approach.
More broadly the call for an asset approach chimes with several wider agendas, not all of them of the same ideological imperative – personalisation, neighbourhoodism, citizenship, community development and, now, the coalition government’s focus on developing a “Big Society”. At this point a generalised consensus can unravel as the different understandings and motivations begin to shape the detail of implementation.
The Big Society
During the general election campaign the Conservative party manifesto stated its ambition of “every adult citizen being a member of an active neighbourhood group… a society where people come together and improve life for themselves and their communities”. David Cameron argued during the campaign that there was a “huge appetite” and a “vast untapped well” of enthusiasm to become involved in social matters.
This remains a speculative position and one that seems to be at odds with the five citizenship surveys that have been carried out for the Department for Communities and Local Government over the past nine years.
Most of the academic research into neighbourhoods would suggest it is unwise to equate the concept with normative assumptions about the capacity of a neighbourhood to act as a rich source of social capital. Most neighbourhoods today do not constrain their inhabitants into strongly bonded relationships with one another. Better transport, longer journeys to work, geographical dispersal of kin and friends, a wider range of shopping and recreational opportunities, and the privatisation of the family, have all reduced the importance of the neighbourhood as a locus of social interaction and social support.
This does not mean that social networks cannot be generated and strengthened, and the asset-based approach may well have an important part to play in such a development. In the initial pronouncement from the Cabinet Office on “building the big society”, the government stated:
“We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when communities are given more power and take more responsibility, can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all”.
The proposed five strands of the Big Society programme bear a strong similarity to the asset-based approach: giving more powers to communities; encouraging people to take an active role in their communities; transferring power from central to local government; supporting co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises; and publishing government data.
The worry is that this is all seen as a cost-cutting exercise to see us through the recession rather than a new and complex approach that will require support and investment. Whichever way, it will surely require councils and their partners to reframe their models of service delivery in social care and beyond.
Professor Bob Hudson, School of Applied Social Sciences, University of Durham
The development of an asset-based approach implies developing some new skills and challenging some traditional ways of working in social care. These will include:
● Mapping the resources, skills and talents of individuals, associations and organisations.
● Developing the links between the different parts of the community and its agencies.
● Revitalising community relationships and mutual support to rediscover collective power.
● Training local community members to research the views, knowledge and experience of their neighbourhood.
● Promoting the confidence and capacity to engage with official agencies.
Much of this is more akin to traditional community development or to the broker role envisaged in policy documents over the last few years. The report does not elaborate on workforce implications.
One possibility is that while some social care professionals continue to focus on the assessment of individuals (and determining whether or not they access support), others will focus upon the ways in which community resources can be developed and utilised. This could constitute part of the universal offer that councils are being urged to develop
● Department of Local Government and Communities (2010), 2008-09 Citizenship Survey: Empowered Communities Topic Report
● Cabinet Office (2010), Building the Big Society
This article is published in the 17 June issue of Community magazine under the heading Community assets and the Big Society