Resources: Clients have assets and solutions too! – exploring asset-based approaches in public services

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Jim Simpson

Jim is a consultant, researcher, coach and developer.

The NHS, social services, education, housing, the police the charity sector - all these agencies need to locate and use the assets of their communities, their clients and the general public. 

At its most simple when public services focus on people’s assets – for instance their goals, motivation, energy, skills, passions, social networks or communities – they are more likely to facilitate progress and positive change as well as avert or postpone problems and crises.

The positive approach to working with people and communities is about garnering assets in people and their connections and re-defining the relationship between ‘experts’ and ‘clients’. Positive here means activities and interventions based on aspiration, opportunities, social capital and good things in people and communities.

Traditional public services and work in communities is more often than not based on a deficit model. This short excerpt contrasts the positive community services idea with the predominant deficit-driven approach that defines much of the public services world. This modelling has been used in work with various large and small scale public and third sector service providers to help re-determine service relationships and whole systems approaches.

Positive/negative approaches in people-based services development


Deficit/negative approach Positive approach Notes
Disadvantages; deprivation Strengths Fixing things that are clearly wrong is necessary but not at the expense of labelling people and whole communities as only deficient.
Lack; deficit Assets Working with assets and strengths is essential and critical to achieving change. Only by creating and boosting people’s assets can change and progression be sustainable.
Learned helplessness/dependence Agency; resilience; independence; Engaging with people as either customers or powerless ‘units’ that have to have things done to them fails to capture the agency and action-potential of people. Such approaches therefore are less likely to achieve positive and progressive outcomes.
Social isolation; deprivation Social capital; networks, connections and ties People have connections and ties of family, friendship and kinship. These are necessary for functioning human life and need to be nurtured and developed.
Weak or harmful associations (positive) social networks Social networks can have positive and negative flows of information and action.
Need Opportunity If need – implying lack – is the only currency of work with individuals or communities then half of the solution to a problem is absent. Opportunities, goals and people’s natural preference for wanting ‘good’ experiences in life need to be factored into the design and delivery of services and initiatives.
Social containment; constraint; ‘choice’ (positive) Social action So called choices in public services, and with this the use of public money are highly constrained and not built to encourage or finance individual or community managed action.
Illness Health; Well-being; flourishing Our health and social care system is entirely based only on curative, medicalised models that do not start from good health and well being. How can we provide for a good life and universal health and well-being? should be the first-order question for a health care system rather than how do we fix disease?
Psychiatry; psycho-pathology Positive psychology A whole, new – relatively new – approach to psychological distress, illness or disorder is taking hold in some parts of our public services system. Positive psychology, and to an extent also behavioural economics is about re-shaping the approach to mental health. It is driven by well-being above and beyond merely treatment.
Co-dependence Independence Detached public service systems that ‘customerise’ and disempower citizens encourage dependence. At worst ‘co-dependence’ can be the very life-blood of some public service interventions creating a dependence whereby citizens need interventions and services that only public services can provide and only on public service terms.
Co-dependent service provision for people Co-designed services and projects with people Good, progressive public services must involve ‘people’ – citizens, residents, patients, pupils or whatever they may be called – in the process of designing the right character and mix of public services. Otherwise public services will never be adequate to meet the needs of and harness the participation of people in securing their own needs and wants.


Community services, health and social care is, by and large, negatively measured. That is, the financial model for funding is about trying to get more of what we have not got – more operations, more social housing, more school or nursery places etc. The strategic model is about deficits, privations, lack, want and trying to tackle these deficits.

As a result privation and poorer ‘social performance’ is often rewarded financially and attempts are made to try and ‘level up’ those on the lowest rungs of social and economic measures. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing.  The point is that it can bring with it some unexpected and unintended consequences.  Extra funding or a bigger slice of the pie incentivises talking up deprivation, need and lower ‘achievement’ whilst not taking into account assets and positive resources or achievements and progress.

Also people who are disadvantaged are herded into categories by say ethnicity or health status as if these definitions describe all the seeds of their disadvantage and the nature of their acting and being.

Attempting to work with and foster positive social action, community assets and well-being is difficult with a deficit mindset in the driving seat. You won’t always get support from peer-workers if you are trying to work with a positive, asset creating agenda, nor will you be rewarded if you are working on causal issues and preventative strategies.  This is because systemically nurturing assets, social capital, positive ‘feeling’, prevention or early intervention are not rewarded by the funding system and commissioners – or at least generally not. Clearly they need to be.

There are some good signs that public services are adapting to the need to work with assets and positive aspects in communities. For instance the NHS Five Year Forward Plan talks about the need to “harness the renewable energy in communities” plus the Care Act proscribes the need to promote well-being and prevention.

For more detailed analysis and discussion of this with case examples please look at the paper Discovering Facilitative Public Management    plus related papers on the themes of public participation, empowerment and customer/citizen approaches are in the sevral short ‘think-piece’ papers of the Empowerment Tools series.

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