The Wigan Deal
One of the great things about working with TLAP is that you get to hear about genuinely innovative work taking place across our sector. You also get to speak to sector leaders who, despite the ongoing slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, remain enthused about the potential to transform outcomes. Stuart Cowley, Director of Adult Social Services in Wigan, is one such leader.
Stuart is leading on the Wigan Deal for adult social care that is proving to be so successful that it’s being rolled out across the council as well as being trialed in GP practices. In addition to investing in community asset mapping, new technology, the development of micro-enterprises and community hubs, Wigan has introduced learning and development in asset-based approaches for all its staff. Stuart very kindly invited me to participate in the training course – a pivotal ingredient of Wigan’s approach to transformation - with the promise that, “this will change how you feel about everything”. Fighting talk!
And so it was that I found myself in a community centre, in Wigan learning about the game changer that is asset (or strength) based approaches which focus on what we can do, rather than what we can’t, and allow us to be led by our skills, gifts, talents, knowledge and not just our needs or deficits.
I like to think I know a bit about how this works…I’ve been advocating it myself for a while in my role as TLAP’s Building Community Capacity policy advisor, but I was unprepared for a course that referenced the film director Werner Herzog, the Azande tribe, termites, wide screen TV’s and squirrels! What made the difference was Wigan’s focus on ethnography which is about immersing yourself fully in the lives of others and being humble enough to accept that you’re not the expert. In practical terms this means listening without judgement, recording without judgement, observing and, crucially, assuming nothing.
It makes sense. If we want to genuinely support ‘a good life’ , we have to understand what it is that engages people’s hearts and minds - fills them with joy, makes them look forward to getting out of bed. And for all that formal health and care services can be essential, they are at their best when they support people’s inclusion in life. They are not, should not, be the main event.
Asset/strength based conversations are the way to unlock what it is that engages the heart. Reading through some of the Wigan case studies demonstrates this. Lives have been changed because people have been connected with something that has meaning to them, whether that’s bird watching, dancing, sewing, singing, volunteering, drama classes or gaining employment. An interesting observation was the paucity of formal service provision.) Whilst a detailed analysis is underway that will provide a robust evaluation of the difference this approach is making, the general feedback is very promising: a reported reduction in the need for formal care service, an increase in residents satisfaction and in increase in workforce satisfaction.
I witnessed the workforce satisfaction for myself. Two of the participants on the course I attended were social workers new to the Wigan approach. Both were animated in their praise for this strengths based approach, which in their view, far surpasses traditional assessment approaches, enrichening both the worker and the individual.
This enthusiasm is clearly enabled by the fact that Wigan is giving its staff time and permission to work creatively. Staff are encouraged to begin the conversation with a blank piece of paper…not tick boxes…and the two overarching guidelines to this approach are to take time to have a different conversation, and know your community
TLAP has been advocating an asset -based approach for some time, a position reflected in a soon to be published sector wide Shared Commitment which posits that the public sector has a part to play in recognising people as assets with knowledge and skills as well as needs. This is an approach that should inform the breadth and depth of health and social care – from asset-based commissioning to strengths-based conversations – both build on the existing capacities and capabilities of communities and individuals
My colleague Martin Walker, self-directed support policy advisor, is actively connecting with councils across the country - Tower Hamlets, Barnett, Kirkless, Nottinghamshire, many councils in the West Midlands, Herforshire and Hull – all of whom are using TLAP’s Strengths-based Approach to Social Work Practice (opens new window) to help them positively engage with this shift in practice.