20 April 2017

Positive conversations, meaningful change: learning from Animating Assets

In the second of our series on asset-based community development, Dr Jennifer McLean, Public Health Programme Manager at the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, describes Animating Assets, a research and learning project that explored what difference working in asset-based way made in communities and services.

The value of building, valuing and enhancing the skills, strengths and successes of individuals and communities is now well recognised, with the language of 'assets' now commonplace in Scotland’s public health literature, policy and ambitions for the future. A focus on what improves and sustains health and wellbeing, reduces inequalities and which has the potential to improve people's life chances we believe is a step in the right direction. But what does this mean for the way we engage with local people, work in communities and deliver public services?

Animating Assets was a partnership research and learning project that sought to explore what difference working in an asset-based way, (that is, ways of working that focus on nurturing engagement and building relationships to enable strengths, capacities and abilities to be developed for positive outcomes), made in communities and services. The project examined the relationship between asset-based approaches and mainstream service delivery by supporting real-time learning from real-life situations in the context of local issues, identified by local people and organisations. We also encouraged positive conversations about aspects of community life that statistics and research data often miss.

Working in a number of geographical areas in Scotland and adopting an explicitly appreciative, collaborative and responsive action research approach, the programme worked alongside people to identify local areas for action and to try out, develop and learn from different ways of doing things with the aim of achieving a common goal. Our approach focused on identifying what was already working well and recognised existing strengths and assets, in the room, the community and in local organisations, as the starting point for inquiry. This way of working focused on being community-led – enabling and supporting local collective action, but not directing or controlling it. We also had a clear focus on observing, gathering and recording evidence of change.

There is however no blueprint for asset-based practice, and therefore our approach in each site was an emergent and negotiated process, based on the local context, locally-focused dialogue, ownership of the process and judgements about what was appropriate and realistic.

A range of creative engagement techniques supported the development of asset-based practice, creating positive ways of working together, revealing evidence and learning to feed into the research process, and building the capabilities of participants (and research team too) at the same time. Over time and through the use of innovative approaches, a bit of imagination, and freedom and trust to practice from the funders, inspiring things started to happen. Energy, enthusiasm and motivation in the room was evident, new connections were being encouraged and established, and a new focus on "collaboration not competition" emerged. A shared local vision for the future was starting to be recognised. But we also we found out that this way of engaging, building connections and researching 'doesn’t just happen' but takes considerable time, effort and preparation.

In the final report we present the stories of our research sites, highlight the collective learning across the programme and share our practice-based experiences of asset-based working in community settings, and across organisations.

From these experiences and our observations, engagement and learning, we identified what supports asset-based approaches and what constrains them, in this context. Both enabling and challenging, these conditions were identified across multiple levels and included the supporting foundations of a receptive policy environment, development of the evidence base, long-term investment, strong working partnerships, shared responsibilities and local capacity building. On the other hand, the perception of asset-based approaches as a response to austerity and saving money, lack of support and freedom to practice, pressure to deliver and increasing workloads were all seen to be barriers to asset-based practice. Indeed these factors may go some of the way to explaining the limited progress (in some areas) of moving the approach from the margins to the mainstream.

Again based on our experiences within the programme, we conclude by proposing our own model for action for those wishing to apply asset-based principles when working with communities, partnerships and services. Linking to and further illustrating the identified enabling conditions, this early model has a number of complementary stages which reinforce the importance of culture and new perspectives, shared agendas, appreciating what already exists, the importance of connections to mobilise actions and commitment shift towards co-producing outcomes.

Animating Assets has demonstrated that across Scotland the significance of building trust, relationships and engagement for positive outcomes is being recognised across agencies. To adopt an asset-based approach is to build on strengths and hopefulness but it also a reflects a commitment to work and operate in a different way: to involve people, to take risks, to share power, to facilitate and enable, and to unlock the potential of people, places and organisations to work together more effectively for the common good.

"It's not about doing different things, but about doing things differently."
 Animating Assets was an action research programme undertaken in partnership by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health and the Scottish Community Development Centre.

Read more about the Animating Assets project and the GCPH's work on asset-based approaches for health improvement.

 Views expressed by guest bloggers may not reflect the views of What Works Scotland.

Other blogs in this series on asset-based community development:

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