What more do we need to do to shift power to communities and put them in the driving seat? | Samantha Hudson

Samantha Hudson

Asset-based working has gained currency in health and social care over recent years, but what does it mean in practice? Samantha Hudson shares how Hampshire is putting the principle into practice, focusing on people, not services. 

Asset-based approaches are back in fashion. This has been helped along by the Social Value Act 2012, Care Act 2014 and Chapter 2 of the Five Year Forward View (5YFV). Hopefully, with legislative clout and policy directives, it's here to stay. 

More and more people are talking about it. It’s great to hear people using the language, but do they really understand what it means and can they practically apply it? 

It's time has come
As someone who started their career as a community development worker, putting the spotlight on asset-based working is music to my ears. Over the years, I’ve worked as a commissioner in joint appointments across health and social care. Most recently, I’ve been leading a change programme in local government, working closely with NHS and third sector partners. 

The Asset-based area briefing – which describes ten features of an ‘asset-based area’  necessary for developing strong communities and sustainable public services – will help us provide another way to focus joint discussion. 

For NHS commissioners, it offers suggestions on how to ‘harness the “renewable energy” of patients and communities’, as mentioned in the 5YFV. This feeds into place-based models, particularly sustainability and transformation partnerships (STPs), new models of care and embracing health-creating practices and a social model of health.

The briefing offers an opportunity to consider the building blocks we already have in place. It provides a practical focus for action, through the characteristics of an asset-based area, a host of support models, which draw on asset-based approaches, and further reading and references. 

But there is more to this than following a step-by-step process. It isn’t linear like a recipe where you can tick off a list of ingredients and get the results shown on the packet. It requires commissioners to rethink why and how we do things in order to become more of a facilitator than a grand planner and problem-solver.

Big step change
Making this happen will be a big step change for many areas. This is because the starting point for commissioning is data. The data that is readily available often comes from the deficit approach, focused on need and what people can't do. 

The challenge is to flip this on its head to create a more balanced picture of an area, so that the evidence gathered at the start of the commissioning cycle gives a clearer, more meaningful view of what is strong and working well, and where there is potential. As commissioners, we can't do this alone – we need local people to help us. 
In essence, an asset-based area is inclusive, recognising we all have an equal stake, and between us, have the wisdom. This can present a real challenge for commissioners and the traditional frameworks within which we operate. 

Introducing and maintaining asset-based area working requires time, patience and a willingness to break down barriers and involve others. This is not always easy, can be messy and can make us question long-held values, which sometimes we do not realise we hold.

Significant rewards
The rewards of working in this way are significant. Hampshire County Council’s Supportive Communities Programme has already started working in this way and we are already reaping the benefits. 

It has helped us shift our thinking and is having an accumulative impact across our organisation and area. We started by defining our value base and ensuring we had real understanding. We improved our listening skills and began to practise seeing the world through a new lens. 

For me, our principle of ‘focusing on people, not services’ was most helpful in enabling us to have a different conversation both inside and outside our organisation. But most importantly, we acknowledged that nothing is perfect first time round – having different conversations, requires effort and a lot of practice! 

One of our biggest challenges is geography and working at a neighbourhood level. We have a tendency to create artificial boundaries instead of working across communities to which people naturally relate. 

While many issues are universal, the uniqueness of our communities shapes responses, but we still sometimes struggle to be nimble and truly trust in the power of people to be their own experts. 

So the question for all of us is this: what more do we need to do to shift power to communities and put them in the driving seat? I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation and hearing your thoughts on where you are and what more we all have to do.

Samantha Hudson is head of communities and wellbeing at Hampshire County Council Adults’ Health and Care and leads the Supportive Communities Programme. To find out more, follow the Supportive Communities Programme on Twitter @supportiveComm or watch this short film.

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