Category Archives: Alex Fox, CEO of Shared Lives

National network calls for more ‘asset-based areas’ to transform communities and services

You can focus on what’s wrong with someone in terms of their health and social care but what if you focus on what’s ‘right’? A national network of community practitioners calls for all public sector professionals and commissioners to work with people’s ‘assets’ rather than their ‘deficits’ if they are to build strong communities and sustainable public services, according to a briefing published today.

The briefing gives a compelling case for why asset-based approaches should be the basis of all local area planning and service delivery and follows on from the launch of Engaging and Empowering communities in 2016, which gained support from national leaders, including NHS England CE Simon Stevens.

The Asset–Based Area briefing was compiled by Alex Fox, CE Shared Lives Plus and Chair of the Building Community Capacity network, hosted by Think Local Act Personal (TLAP), which is leading the way.

In it, Fox and the network offer practical guidance with a description of the ten features of an ‘asset-based area’ that nurtures people’s wellbeing, resilience and influence so that they become equal partners, not passive recipients to the organisations and people who respond to their needs. They also suggest a number of planning and support models that use asset-based thinking and have been operating for years in different areas and with differing degrees of take up and success -models ranging from Homeshare schemes, dementia friendly communities, Time-banking and others.

Alex Fox OBE, Chief Executive of Shared Lives Plus, said:

“During this period where there’s huge pressure on money available to local areas it is more important than ever that every area can find value and build the full range of resources and assets that could be available to it. This would require leaders and decision makers to see their role as working with, not for, people. Working in co-production with people with health and care needs is at the heart of all asset-based methods”.

Clenton Farquharson MBE, Chair of Think Local Act Personal board, said:

“I have nearly 15 years’ experience of arranging my own support and employ a Personal Assistant who enables me to live a full and active life including spending time with family and running a Disabled People’s User Led organisation called Community Navigator Service CIC, besides other interests and ambitions. I don’t want to be part of the lucky few, I want more people to be supported and facilitated to live the type of life I enjoy”

Angela Boyle, Head of Programmes, Coalition for Collaborative Care, said:

“There is clear evidence that building asset-based areas works. By bringing together people and organisations we can nurture stronger, healthier communities. This paper supports community leaders with practical tools and models to effectively utilise the powerful assets that already exist in their communities for improved health and wellbeing”


The Collaboration Test

As the Coalition for Collaborative Care gets underway, what should its relationship be with the not for profit sector?

Connecting with people and communities has been something the not for profit sector has for years often done better than the public and private sectors, but it’s only recently that making those kinds of community connections has started to appear prominently in government and NHS policies. Partly driven by the necessity of redefining what public services can do during austerity, a consensus is building that public services are not something that ‘professionals’ do to ‘patients’ or offer to ‘customers’, but are increasingly built on the success with which responsibility, knowledge, resources and – ultimately- power can be shared between people or families with long term support needs and workers who bring expertise, skills and kit, but who can’t magic up long term health and wellbeing for another person.

The need for collaborative care is a strong argument for collaboration between the public and not for profit sectors. It’s also a challenge to the not for profit sector: does every charity and social enterprise have the kind of close, trusting relationship with individuals and their communities that the not for profit sector advertises? How do you maintain a strong connection with a community if you are a very large national charity for instance? Some national charities demonstrate that they can combine the clout of being big with the ethos of being localised, but good local relationships can’t be assumed, just because an organisation has a charity number.

It’s also important to understand that whilst collaborative models of care are a strength of charities, community groups and social enterprises, ensuring those models ‘get into the water supply’ (as Canadian social entrepreneur Vickie Cammack puts it) of public services can’t just be the role of the not for profit sector. We need a way of building the expectation of collaboration into every contract for every kind of service, whether public, private or not for profit. In the absence of a better term so far, I’m calling this the collaboration test and it’s a test I believe should be universally applied. The test would be something like this:

Does this intervention or service leave each individual, family or community it is offered to:

  • Better informed (or mired in jargon and bureaucracy)?
  • More confident of their own capacity and more resilient (or more reliant on outside help and expertise)?
  • Better connected to those around them (or with new barriers between them and their family, friends and neighbours)?

It’s easy to see how many not for profits directly try to achieve these goals, particularly where they are delivering community-based initiatives. Adopting these tests universally would help to drive resources towards such initiatives, because they are harder to pass, the more institutionalised or industrialised a service becomes.

But every intervention, and particularly every intervention which is intended to be long term, can be delivered in a way which is confusing, undermining and isolating, or in a way which shares knowledge, resources and power and which aims to minimise its negative impacts upon relationships and connections (close to home, not in a distant hospital, for instance) and where possible to support those informal support networks, for instance, through the professional sharing information and expertise with family carers and being contactable in an emergency.

The ‘customer service’ paradigm for public services is over. It looked achievable and affordable briefly during the boom years, but it can lead to unmet expectations and weaker civic society relationships, which hurt the whole concept of public service during austerity.

If you do a great job of carrying out a procedure, or providing treatment, but you fail the collaboration test, your service is not giving itself the greatest possible chance of success – which means it’s also failing the value for money test. So ‘efficiencies’ which shave a few minutes off contact times, at the expense of people or families having the knowledge, networks and back-up they need to live well with a long term condition, are, in fact, inefficiencies. But if we think collaboratively, then every intervention becomes potentially a preventative intervention. That’s why it’s the key to a public service culture which we can afford, as well as one which feels like it’s on our side when we need it most.

Alex Fox is CEO of Shared Lives Plus  the national charity for Shared Lives and Homeshare services. He is the lead board member for Building Community Capacity in the Think Local, Act Personal partnership.