Changing the system not the person: how an asset-based approach can change lives

February 15, 2021   By Sarah Cooke, Managing Director, Kirklees Better Outcomes Partnership

How do you try to solve a problem like homelessness? By working with Bridges Outcomes Partnerships, Kirklees Council focused on asking people what they wanted to achieve. By doing so, they learnt how a community-led and ‘asset-based’ approach can make a difference.

In 2019, Kirklees Council decided to try a different approach to supporting people at risk of homelessness.

Emma Hanley, Senior Contracting and Procurement Manager, felt the traditional ways of commissioning support services were not working as well as she wanted. Programmes were heavily geared towards meeting the presenting needs of individuals, with rigid service specifications focused on managing short-term issues. This made it difficult for individuals to develop the skills they needed to fulfil their longer-term ambitions and move forward to independence – which meant they were returning to services repeatedly.

Emma and her team commissioned our social enterprise, Kirklees Better Outcomes Partnership (KBOP – a programme within Bridges Outcomes Partnerships) to challenge this ‘revolving door’. Our ambition was to engage with individuals who may have spent years being passed from service to service, stuck on waiting lists until their situation gets worse and they finally become a priority. We also wanted to act in a more preventative way, intervening quickly when an individual first encounters difficulties with their home or finances. By helping them to address low-level problems, they should be better able to sustain their homes or jobs and avoid entering the cycle of homelessness.

So our starting point was to ask: how do we design a service that avoids the processes and the tick-boxes, and ensures we are ready to listen to people when they want to talk?

And how do we look beyond an individual’s difficulties or “failings” to see their potential – so instead of focusing on their past, we work with them to realise their ambitions for the future? We felt that if we could do all this at their pace, in their way, we could deliver a more effective programme.

This new person-centred, “asset-based” way of working (which draws heavily on lessons from Mayday Trust’s “Personal Transition Service”) is the vision at the heart of KBOP. We ask our participants what they want to achieve, rather than deciding what is best for them. And the outcomes-based structure gives us the flexibility to adapt our delivery models to do this, creating an environment for innovation and systems change.

Our programme brings together eight specialist delivery partner organisations, who work together across extensive rural and urban communities in West Yorkshire. Each partner within the consortium is an expert in their field, and can use their expertise in housing, mental health, domestic abuse, substance misuse and criminal justice to enable people to achieve their ambitions. By sharing expertise and solutions across the partnership, we can support individuals to work towards multiple outcomes – or achievements as we call them – all through one relationship with a single professional (instead of having to juggle multiple people and appointments).

The programme is based on a ‘social outcomes contract’ – which means the commissioner pays for the achievement of agreed milestones, not the delivery of a pre-specified service. This allows for a more collaborative, more flexible approach: we are constantly looking to learn and improve how we work, from our systems and processes to the language we use. And by collaborating across our network, we have been able to create efficiencies, reduce duplication and more importantly improve the experience for the individuals working with us. 

For instance: by asking our participants and delivery partners how we could change the system in order to respond more meaningfully, we were able to tailor our programme to better align to the long-term ambitions of the people we support.

This co-production helped us identify the frustrations around the delivery process, which for those receiving support were overwhelmingly around the level of paperwork required. Initially, we implemented a single referral and IT system, to reduce duplication. But it still felt as though there was too much focus on numbers and evidence – leaving us in danger of hitting our targets but missing the point.

So we went one step further and completely removed the staged referral and assessment process. We stopped putting people into boxes according to their needs – low, medium or high – and instead began with a blank page and a conversation. By stripping back the process like this – and ‘un-learning’ everything that had been considered as essential for effective support – we were able to create time and space to listen. In short: we changed the system, not the person.

It’s still early days in our asset-based revolution. But the early signs are positive, and performance is improving every month. So far we have supported more than 2,070 individuals. And the more we listen to our participants, the more we learn about the benefits of doing something differently. We recently met up with one of our cohort in his beautiful new house, and talked about how he was thriving in his new job.

All he had wanted was a home and a job – but because of his PTSD, he had been too frightened to use public transport or apply. By identifying his strengths, we were able to work out that his positive wellbeing was linked to exercise – which helped him find a role that suited him. And through our Personalisation Fund, we were able to buy him a bike so he could commute to work.

But if you asked him, he wouldn’t say he had been “assessed” or “supported” by KBOP. Instead, as he puts it: “For the first time in my life, someone just listened and talked through what I wanted, until I realised what I could achieve for myself.” That’s the kind of impact we want to have.

Sarah Cooke is Managing Director at Kirklees Better Outcomes Partnership (KBOP), a partnership of social sector organisations commissioned by Kirklees Council to support people who face an increased risk of homelessness.

KBOP is part of Bridges Outcomes Partnerships, a not-for-profit social enterprise that works with Government, community groups and specialist partners to design and deliver more effective services in vital areas like housing, employment, education and wellbeing. BOP became a partner in New Local’s network in 2020.

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