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Asset-based approaches: reflections on a journey of writing in partnership

19 May 2016 | Jennifer McLean

Today sees the publication by Dunedin Academic Press ofAsset-based approaches: their rise, role and reality, a publication I am proud to have written in partnership and collaboration with Lisa Pattoni from IRISS and Fiona Garven from SCDC.

It sometimes feels like talk of asset-based approaches is everywhere, but what do we mean when we use this term, where has it come from, what difference does this way of working make and what does the evidence say so far?

Asset-based working starts with a ‘way of seeing the world’, it is a mindset, a philosophy: believing that people are equal regardless of circumstance or position, and recognising that everyone has something valuable to contribute, I think an excellent and refreshing starting point. The approach in its true sense, for me, embraces the need to move away from simply defining people in terms of what they don’t have, to what they do have, and acknowledging that individuals and communities that we often label as deprived are rich in relationships, resourcefulness, spirit and social and personal resources. But it’s also not about asking people, often in difficult situations, to think positively despite their circumstances or ignore structural and material issues which may be affecting their life, and which are often out with their control. Instead, asset-based working offers a way to redress an imbalance that currently favours a focus on needs and problems rather than skills, strengths and successes. For those who are accustomed to being characterised in negative terms, being provided with an opportunity to be part of an alternative or different story that values positive aspects of their life and their community, can be empowering.

Our book aims to provide a critical, but broad, overview of the evidence for asset-based approaches to date, with particular attention paid to the developing debate in Scotland, but with lessons and learning drawn from work undertaken further afield. As the debate is not confined to one policy area, our book considers the approach from three broad perspectives, those of public health, community development and social services.

For me, coming from a public health perspective, my interest in asset-based approaches stems from the recognition that due to multiple demographic and social factors and rising pressures on healthcare budgets, we can’t just keep trying to do more or fix the services that we have, we need to start to think differently about how we deliver healthcare services, what we deliver and where we deliver it. Asset-based approaches from a services perspective, fundamentally changes the way organisations and the people within them think about how they deliver their services, work with, and provide support to service users and their families.

Asset-based approaches are primarily about people. In this spirit, we have written this book by drawing on the people within our networks. In the early days of development we brought together a small group of insightful colleagues to help us to shape the content of a book that they felt would be a helpful resource to them and other practitioners. Further building on this spirit of participation, we subsequently interviewed ten key individuals to draw out the experiences, insights and the voices of people using asset-based approaches in practice. Quotes from these individuals are used throughout the book to bring the evidence-base alive and to illustrate key points. A number of case studies are also presented to further share examples of practice.

Preparation of the book brought together, not only different professional expertise and perspectives, but also different writing styles, knowledge, understandings and experience. Through our partnership approach to writing the book, our professional and personal relationships have been strengthened, alongside the relationships between our respective organisations. We hope this book will be of interest to those from policy and practice backgrounds alike and will be helpful in expanding and contributing to the ongoing debate.

To adopt an asset-based approach is to build on strengths and hope. In Scotland we have much to be hopeful for with national policy and conversations taking place about how to build a fairer, healthier and more socially just Scotland. A move towards asset-based approaches reflects a commitment to operate in a different way; to involve people, to take risk, to share power, to enable rather than provide, with a clear focus on unlocking the potential of people, places and organisations to work more effectively for the common good. Are we up for the challenge?

Find out more about Asset-based approaches: their rise, role and reality

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