News and Comment

A summary of our recent ‘Coping with tough times’ public interest seminar

Friday 7 December 2012

On Tuesday evening OPM hosted the most recent in its regular series of public interest seminars, looking at the potential of asset-based approaches and community capacity building techniques to alleviate the worst consequences of today’s tough times.

We were delighted to welcome an impressive and experienced panel that drew on their expertise in local government and the voluntary sector to speak on this subject with great knowledge, understanding and perhaps most noticeably, genuine passion.

After the speakers’ opening statements, a lively and thought provoking discussion followed under Chatham House rules. For the benefit of those unable to attend on the night, we’ve summarised some of the key points from this debate below, and included the most pertinent quotes from the panel’s opening remarks. We’ll also be posting a short video blog next week consisting of brief interviews with each of the evening’s speakers.

Asset-based approaches require different ways of thinking about the people in a community

Listening to all four panellists, it was clear that a fundamental tenet of asset-based approaches involves people moving away from negative, and false, perceptions of different groups in the community. Cllr Sally Prentice, Cabinet Member for Culture and Leisure, Lambeth Council, emphasised this point:

Take older people for instance, there’s a temptation for people to think that because older people have retired from work they’ve also retired from life, but this is clearly not the case. Although they may be major users of health and social care services, older people also want to play sport, use leisure facilities, visit libraries etc. We’d fall to bits without the time and energy and expertise of these people.

Fazilet Hadi, Group Director of Inclusive Society at the RNIB, concurred stressing that “blind and partially sighted people are amazingly resilient people that do amazing things. We need to move away from the premise that they are needy; they’re not needy they’ve got so much to give!”

Jane Vaas, Head of Public Policy at Age UK, was also in agreement saying “we need to start seeing our ageing population as a valuable resource.”

This recognition that all people have different and valuable resources was picked up on by Simon Williams, Director of Merton Council’s Community and Housing Department, who revealed the strategy in his borough:

Essentially what we’re doing is trying to uncover people’s skills and put them in touch with those who could benefit from them. It’s all about mapping assets in the community and beginning the conversation.

Open and honest dialogue is crucial

Our panellists made it clear however, that in order for asset based and community capacity building approaches to be successful, an open, honest and transparent dialogue with the communities in question is vital. As Jane Vaas put it:

The starting point to this is having an open and honest engagement with older people themselves; and we need all our ageing population involved in this, not just those who are healthy and wealthy. It’s all about inclusive society.

Fazilet Hadi wanted to ask to local authorities, “How much do they know about what their citizens want? Once you know this, even though some of it is bound to be unattainable, somehow everything is more solvable.”

Although as we heard from the floor, finding this information out in practice can be fraught, as officers reported that when asking their constituents their views on certain decisions; they are sometimes greeted with variations of a “we pay you to decide” reply.

Asset-based approaches aren’t a way of avoiding difficult decisions

Feedback such as this highlighted the difficulties that can be encountered when local authorities are open about the fact that the best way forward isn’t always known. As the speakers also made clear, it would be wrong to think that taking an asset-based approach avoids difficult choices, however, especially when it comes to the use of scarce resources. Cllr Sally Prentice stated:

We would be doing this anyway regardless of the recession but since we’ve lost £90m of revenue, it’s important to spend every penny carefully to improve the lives of local residents.

And Simon Williams from Merton compounded this point, explaining that a true asset-based approach means reviewing all assets, including universal ones:

We’re also giving people the message that we expect them to use universal assets, for instance free bus passes rather than the Council putting additional transport in place. We have to be brave to say we’re going to stop doing some things in order to invest in new things.

As one attendee neatly summed up, with asset-based approaches just as with everything else in local government at the moment, the tyranny of the business case cannot be escaped.

OPM hosts public interest seminars on a quarterly basis, bringing together senior managers, policy-makers and practitioners from the public and voluntary sectors to debate the burning issues affecting them. If you would like find out more about OPM’s public interest seminars please email