Transforming Services And Impact Through Asset-Based Community Development

After running a session on design research at the 2017 Service Design in Government Conference, I returned this year to run a workshop on an idea that I believe holds great potential to transform the communities in which we live, and the activities that help shape the lives of the people who live there.

This is a summary of the themes in my workshop on Asset-Based Development (ABCD) titled ‘Our Abundant Communities,’ shamelessly borrowing from John McKnight, a core writer on the subject.

Services that touch the most important parts of our lives – our mental and physical health, bereavement, childcare and housing are often organised and professionalised in ways that cause citizens to feel disempowered, uninvolved – ‘served to’. The potential of people and those close to them, their networks and local knowledge have an important part to play in services that are more inclusive, meaningful, human and ultimately effective.

Our neighbourhoods are alive with services. We benefit from them, interact with them, complain about them and work for them every day. They are the intangible 80% of our economy.

But services struggle with people’s contexts. Lives are complex, but you fit to the system, not the other way around. Every service experience is unique and subjective – the same person could have completely different reasons for interacting with a service from one day to the other, and vastly different outcomes and experiences. Similarly a hospital waiting room could contain 10 people with similar illnesses, and all of them may leave willing to rate their experience from terrible to excellent.

One answer is service design. We’re getting better at this. Service design champions the users of a service and looks for ways to humanise everything from the organisational structure, to staff conditions and training while making sure that the provision of the service is still feasible (i.e. not every citizen can have their own personal doctor on call). As service designers, we balance the shifting needs, desires and expectations of users’ experiences with developments in technology, business models, policy and legislation, and economical necessity.

But this is thinking of many (users)-to-one (organisation) interactions. Complex social challenges require coalitions. And we’re getting better at this too. No one institution or organisation can feasibly be responsible for reducing obesity, crime or homelessness in the UK. To respond to complex lives, and city or nationwide challenges, ecosystems of services and commissioning across sectors may be required. This is called (among other names) collaborative impact.

Design is helping make services more effective. Coalitions are getting better at impact. But citizens are still ‘served to.’ This is because of the formal nature of the public, private and third sectors. They are organisations with policies that dictate how they serve and provide for citizens / consumers / patients / students / victims / employees and others. Again, to remain feasible, the organisation needs to define boundaries for its remit, and does the same when classifying and defining users.

Individuals are frequently primarily identified by needs and challenges. But we must open up other lenses and see also their assets and potential. This helps to challenge traditional assumptions of service models and measures of success, and imagine bold new concepts that deliver on a higher set of outcomes – not just healthcare but your best health, not just housing but belonging, not just recovery from crises but resilience.

Our neighbourhoods are alive with activity, and potential. This informal activity is vital to a fulfilling life, and it’s effective in ways formal services dream of.

As well as providing formal services, as professionals, organisations and institutions we can support these qualities, skills, activities and knowledge to enable citizens to live better lives, and reinforce the social fabric of our communities.

We must always consider shifting our focus upward: from our functional remit (checking the quality and safety of housing, running education sessions for inmates, publishing easy-to-read financial advice for people in debt, administering allocations of equipment and labour to maintain green spaces) to the higher outcomes we are seeking to contribute towards or achieve. Perverse incentives also emerge when organisations work to order and not to purpose: Consider a charity that seeks to raise as much money as possible to run a nationwide school sports day, but achieves this end by selling ad space to fast food outlets and installing vending machines in school corridors.

By keeping our daily actions, monthly targets and strategic decisions in harmony with the higher outcomes we seek to effect, we can make a greater impact on society, have more opportunities of working as part of a coalition, and we can become more valuable organisations in the process.

Which brings us back to some key questions that were asked of the workshop cohort (which included people involved in policy, running and directing government services and allocating funding and commissioners). Although, in the workshop, I provided activities and tools to help with the ‘how’…

How can we, as service ‘providers’ from the public, private and third sectors…

1. Identify under-used resources, and the skills, knowledge and assets citizens have to contribute to shared outcomes?

2. Design platforms to enable, facilitate, support communities and citizens to safely contribute in meeting challenges together?