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Clare Harding

Is your council getting the most from using a strengths-based approach?

This article originally appeared in The MJ.

Strengths-based approaches have been a talking point within adult social care since the launch of the Care Act in 2014, and interest has only increased as the sector considers how to pursue better outcomes with ever-reducing budgets.

A good starting point for a definition of a strengths-based approach is that used by Lyn Romeo, England’s Chief Social Worker for Adults, in the Strengths-based approach handbook published by the Department of Health and Social Care: “It is about enabling people to find the best solutions for themselves, to support them in making independent decisions about how they live. I whole heartedly believe in taking a strengths and asset-based approach to supporting individuals and empower people to live the lives they want.”

At IMPOWER, we have helped dozens of councils to get the most from using the approach. Our experience is that a strengths-based approach provides a framework that – when adopted across a whole system – helps people to live more independent lives and enables councils to focus on getting the best possible outcomes with the money they have available.

However, ‘strengths-based’ is a term that is often bandied around as a solution to almost all of the issues facing adult social care. Our experience is that councils have gained the most ground and delivered the greatest impact when their use of the approach goes beyond a process or practice framework. That means:

  • Having a clear vision to prevent, delay or reduce a person’s support needs
  • Ensuring that everyone in the service focuses on using a person’s abilities and assets to maximise their independence
  • Taking a whole system approach to strengths-based practice that goes beyond the practice of frontline workers, and incorporates it into everything from budget, communication and commissioning, to partnerships and management approach
  • Including a focus on independence and relationships in their values and behaviours
  • Ensuring that the approach is seen as the new ‘business as usual’ and not as a time limited programme
  • Introducing performance measures and monitoring to support strengths-based working and shared learning

Councils who have taken a less comprehensive approach – and there are cases where the approach has been seen as little more than a training opportunity for frontline social work staff – have had much less success. But the good news is that over the last two or three years, we have seen a move away from simply bringing in a trainer to deliver one-off training courses. Instead, an increasing number of services have chosen to reframe their vision and delivery through a strengths-based lens.

There are numerous examples of councils benefitting from the comprehensive adoption of a strengths-based approach; some examples of what this has meant in practise are given below.

  • The London Borough of Ealing has used a strengths-based approach to ensure that input from occupational therapists is available across the whole customer journey and does not only revolve around waiting lists for an assessment. This has successfully reduced assessment waiting times, increased the productivity of the occupational therapy team, improved engagement from the team in delivering the new vision for adult social care, increased the number of people using equipment to support their independence at home and reduced the hours of homecare needed. This was achieved by introducing trusted assessor training across the contact centre and social care teams, basing an occupational therapist within the hospital discharge review team and formalising the process for undertaking joint social care and occupational therapy assessments and reviews.
  • Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council have rewritten many of their public facing communications (such as their websites, leaflets, letters and forms) to ensure that these focus on encouraging people to think about how they can independent and are committed to taking action to remain so. Over the past year they have seen an increase of up to 60% in the number of people accessing information online, which has reduced the number of people calling the contact centre. In turn this has enabled the contact centre staff to have more meaningful conversations with those they do speak to, resulting in more effective signposting and a reduction in the proportion of contacts leading to a referral for assessment.
  • Bradford Metropolitan District Council have developed a tailored strengths-based approach for learning disability reviews. They have focussed on empowering individuals to take control of their review and the outcomes they want to achieve, as well as increasing awareness of alternatives to formal support. By working with staff to practice the conversations they have with individuals and their families, and through encouraging peer support, they have been able to confidently set independence-focused goals with individuals and in many cases reduce the formal support they require now and in the future.

These examples – and those from many other councils – show that embracing a strengths-based approach brings wide-ranging benefits. Supporting people to remain independent not only improves their wellbeing and reduces spend on long-term care packages, but also improves employee engagement by enabling staff to have more immediate positive impact on people’s lives.

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