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Public Services must put strengths-based approaches at the centre if they are going to recover from COVID-19

Laura Power-Wharton argues that we need to put relationships at the heart of our public services, and shift our focus to seeing individuals’ and communities’ strengths as the key to overcoming difficulties in people’s lives.

Following our recent webinar on Family Group Conferences, I have been reflecting on how FGCs and the process around them promotes a strengths-based approach. Key to FGCs is that an individual and their family are seen as experts in their lives who can, together with their community or ‘relational network’, find solutions.

For many of us, this instantly makes sense. Our ‘family’, which may include relatives, friends and other members of our community are the cornerstone of our existence and those that we rely on for support. I know that was certainly the case when my dad was diagnosed with cancer: our family consisted of many unrelated individuals that were essential in his survival.

And yet, all too often in public services, the approach of recognising strengths is not evident. Historic practice reinforces a tendency to see individuals and their families as a ‘set of issues’ which require external intervention. All of us have at some point have been guilty of identifying a problem in a friend or family member’s life and jumping to the solution we think fits. As a consultant, problem solving is something I pride myself on, but I also know that, to implement sustainable, long-term change, I need to establish strong relationships with my clients, building on the knowledge and expertise they already have.

The importance of the power of relationships is understood by many local authorities I have worked with. At the centre of Leeds Council’s children’s services improvement journey was the premise that families are the most important influence on outcomes for children and that by working with families in restorative ways they can be enabled to solve their own problems earlier and more effectively. In Hertfordshire, the Council’s Family Safeguarding model applies a collaborative way of working where parents are motivated to identify the changes needed within their own families. Similarly, in the NHS in Shropshire, Social Prescribing Advisors use motivational interviewing to support individuals to come up with a plan of action and connect people back to a service or activity in their community when the time is right. Strikingly, these examples are viewed as innovative and are not commonplace across the system.

So why aren’t strengths-based approaches more widespread in public services?

We asked attendees who registered for our webinar to tell us the biggest challenge they faced with FGCs. Words such as ‘powerlessness’, ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘time’ were used along with a now somewhat predictable mention of COVID-19. The challenge COVID-19 has presented to these approaches built heavily upon relationships shouldn’t be ignored but for some local authorities, such as Camden and Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, this has also provided opportunities to, for example, use technology to engage an even wider support network in FGCs and capitalise on the community movement.

With regards to the other challenges mentioned by attendees, what I have heard from professionals who have embedded these approaches in their areas is that individuals, including staff, and communities need the authority to act in a way that focuses on strengths and assets, and that with the right training and support they can affect positive change. Recognising and identifying strengths and assets is as much a skill as any other aspect of practice and needs to be learnt and developed.

In his recent report ‘Levelling Up Our Communities’, government advisor and MP Danny Kruger states that we should have ‘a far more positive approach to the people and places “left behind”’ and that, in practice, this requires “a robust determination to reward services and organisations that apply strengths-based approaches”.

In the recovery from COVID-19, we have learnt the power of families and communities and this should continue, putting strength-based approaches at the heart of our social system to enable people to live happier, healthier existences in the long-term.

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