Learning our ABCD in Leeds

Source: PSE June/July 2019

Mick Ward, chief officer of transformation and innovation, adults and health at Leeds City Council, provides an overview of the innovative ABCD model transforming care services.

In Leeds, tackling loneliness, particularly for older people, has been a priority for many years. This focus on loneliness led to the creation of a fantastic network of community-based, locally-led organisations called Neighbourhood Networks (NN) working to help older people live independently and proactively within their local communities.

While the council was expanding these networks, we came across the concept of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). A colleague had heard Cormac Russell speak about ABCD work and was so inspired that she persuaded us to re-jig the neighbourhood networks project to test out ABCD as a way of supporting older people in Leeds to be more connected to where they lived.

We trialled this approach in three of the networks using what I now recognise as the ‘classic’ ABCD framework: establishing a community builder to support community connectors, providing “small sparks” of funding and developing community led asset maps so we could clearly see existing assets in communities and look at how we could support these.

Not everything worked but there were some successes and building on these, in 2017, we established three new ABCD pathfinders. We targeted organisations we had little or no relationship with to move away from social care ‘service land’ towards connecting with organisations rooted deeply within communities. These pathfinders far exceeded expectations and revealed the massive potential of people working together to make changes for themselves and their community.

Meanwhile, our new director of adults and health, Cath Roff, was passionate about community work and Strength Based Social Care (SBSC). This changes the way social workers interact with people by focusing more on their strengths and ‘what matters to them’. As we improved our understanding of resilient communities and people’s strengths and assets, these two approaches became more important to our work.

We also gained more information from the pathfinders and developed our knowledge of ABCD, and so using this evidence, we decided to secure long-term investment and scale up our ABCD across the city. We made an important decision in our strategy: to establish more sites working to the ABCD framework - community builder, community connectors, small sparks funding, asset mapping - and promoting ABCD as an ‘approach’.

We worked with Leeds Beckett University to establish an evaluation framework focusing on three outcomes:

  • Individuals and communities are better connected
  • Communities identify and work to bring about the changes they want to see
  • People have good friends

These three outcomes are notoriously difficult to evidence, so for the pathfinders we also have a range of indicators including:

  • Community connectors have a thorough knowledge of the area
  • A number of groups formed around an interest
  • Changes that happen are initiated and sustained by local people
  • People know their neighbours’ names
  • Changes to business strategies/funding agreements
  • Number of celebration events

We asked the sites to keep diaries and develop asset maps and case studies so we had a wealth of information - but it did significantly change our monitoring by moving away from counting to understanding.

The pathfinder evidence and the stories from community connectors, along with strong political and leadership support, allowed us to expand pathfinder sites from three to 12 and to fund a dedicated post to commission and support the work.

We funded training for pathfinders, including three to act as ABCD catalysts, and for those wanting to develop ABCD approaches; we’ve helped those emerging ABCD sites and promoted it across the city. Crucially, the funding for this is recurrent, ensuring long-term and sustainable implementation. Funding for this has come in part from our communities service area and the NHS as they have seen the benefits for community cohesion and health and wellbeing.

Even at 12 sites though, we’re a long way from covering the whole city. Leeds has up to 140 different neighbourhoods, depending on how you identify them. As a Loiner born and bred, I lean closer to the 140 mark!

As a result, we knew we needed to expand ABCD as a way of working across organisations and services as well as establishing the specific sites. So while it’s not quite pure ABCD work nurturing all potential assets in a community, there is a great opportunity to work with a range of organisations.

In the third sector we’ve have built on the existing role and ways of working with NNs and this is now embedded in the grant criteria for the services.

Similarly, we’ve added using an asset based approach into the contracts of new community mental health services and had positive discussions with a range of organisations including those delivering support to people with a learning disability, and those needing housing support. We don’t expect them to use the full ABCD framework, but they are increasingly taking a much stronger asset- based approach and are looking at how they can support people to be more connected to their communities and to nurture people’s strengths and gifts.

There is also an interest from other directorates in the council such as physical activity, sport, arts, and culture where organisations want to be more citizen led or become community assets and connectors.

We’re also working with the communities and environment directorate to commission ABCD pathfinders. The ABCD approach is gaining support within council-based staff, changing their relations and interactions with communities.

Across the health and social care system, there’s interest in applying ABCD within community healthcare services and increasing support from GP practices within the emerging Local Care Partnerships. All of this is backed up with ABCD training and a practitioners’ network.

Don’t underestimate the degree of change which a move towards ABCD requires, and not surprisingly there have been challenges! These include:

  • “We already do that!”
  • Making it work for all and recognising where it doesn’t
  • The importance of continuing to fund existing services
  • Traditional evaluation and reporting

It’s a seismic shift from ‘service land’ to community activism and good neighbourliness and for some, this is viewed as yet another way of delivering cuts or threatening existing services and roles.

I quote Edgar Kahn: “No society has the money to buy, at market prices, what it takes to raise children, make a neighbourhood safe, care for the elderly, make democracy work or address systemic injustices….. The only way the world is going to address social problems is by enlisting the very people who are now classified as ‘clients’ and ‘consumers’ and converting them into co-workers, partners and rebuilders of the core economy.”


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