Public and third sector services in Wales have a fighting chance of financial sustainability and at the same time improving outcomes for individuals, families and communities if they work more collaboratively in a strengths-based capacity. But what they all must do, is ultimately direct that strengths-based collaboration back to addressing two universal truths and basis of a better life - Relationships & Purpose.
There is currently a lot of talk in the public and third sectors (and increasingly in the private sector in relation to management of change) about strengths-based approaches, trauma-informed approaches, early intervention and their importance to promoting better wellbeing outcomes for individuals, families and communities. There is an increasing belief that thin resources can be spread better if using strengths-based approaches effectively.
What is a strengths-based approach I hear you ask? It’s not that complicated actually. Historically public and third sector services have tried to find out about peoples’ ‘needs’, fix their problems, patch them up and send on their merry way - having played the consistent role of ‘expert’. There are a number of things wrong with this.
It wrongly assumes that we (professionals) know best what’s right for a person when they are in fact the key experts in their own lives.
It also concentrates on what’s not working in people’s lives instead of what is working well. Some challenges can’t be ‘fixed’ (e.g. onset of chronic, enduring physical condition) but they can at the very least be made much more bearable by utilising and building on the aspects of a person’s life that work well.
Attention to “what is wrong” is the prevailing perspective on how to help across health and social care and other helping sectors. Traditional interventions maintain the belief that people need help because they have a problem.
Beginning a ‘helping’ or ‘therapeutic’ relationship is difficult enough where the party that needs help is already feeling vulnerable and disempowered. Furthermore, beginning that relationship by concentrating only on what is wrong with their lives - robs that person of the opportunity to begin thinking creatively about how their situation can be resolved, alleviated or made more bearable.
There is growing evidence that defining people by their deficits and therefore, limiting of options, obscuring the recognition of a person’s assets and strengths and focusing on the “can’ts” as opposed to the “cans” will reduce personal resilience, have a worse impact on wellbeing in the long-term and make people more reliant on services as the solutions to their challenges.
The Social Services and Wellbeing and Future Generations Acts in Wales promote strengths-based approaches and sustainability in services. The legislation, policy and rhetoric are great. However, there is a major gap between the ‘talk’ and the ‘walk’ for organisations and staff from executive level right through to the front line. Professional staff working in the public or third sectors want to be upbeat about the direction of policy at the moment. But unless they understand how to properly navigate from policy/rhetoric to strengths-based delivery and action more quickly there is a risk that great sentiments will remain just that and the opportunity to deliver strengths-based services as a default will simply whither on the vine.
As recognised by Housing LIN Cymru, there is some great work already happening; particularly by public health, some housing providers, some third sector providers and Social Care Wales in promoting strength-based approaches. However, to be successful - change needs to be facilitated on a multi-agency basis given the number of organisations that provide services in the same communities, to the same families, to the same individuals. The number of organisations involved along with the intensity of the involvement increases for some people higher up on the Index of Multiple Deprivation.
Indeed, a collaborative strengths-based working will enable a sustainable future for services in an unprecedented era of increasing demand for services and reduced budgets and can help also reduce inequalities in our society
Effecting strengths-based change on a multi-sector level where e.g. the NHS, Social Services, Probation, Housing, Third Sector and so on, are working with the same individuals and communities is challenging - but we must make it work to make strength-based practice the default no matter what sector someone works in. The prize is that we can help build much better individual resilience, strengthen social and community networks to overcome these challenges and reduce reliance on our statutory services.
Follow Hugh on Twitter - @Hugh_Irwin
Follow Masaf-Lin on Twitter - @masaflin