Whole system reform centred on strengths-based and relational services

In How we lost sight of the point of public services and what to do about it, a New Thinking paper published recently by New Local, Prof Chris Fox and I argue for a radical re-imagining of public services. Here is the short read:

The challenges facing public services in 2023

The challenges public services face are complex and cumulative. They are a product of under-investment over the last decade but also of ill-conceived structural reforms over the last 30 years. Too often reforms have mimicked outdated notions of competition and tighter management taken from the private sector with disappointing results. The irony is that this has happened while the best of the private sector has been reinventing itself based on new concepts of innovation, environmental and social responsibility and new, empowering organisational structures.

The challenges we face now have been in the making for decades, but as we enter 2023 they seem to be reaching a tipping point. Across multiple parts of the public sector including health, social care, criminal justice and education staff are less well, are leaving their professions and are getting harder to replace. Particularly worrying is the rates at which more experienced staff are leaving, raising questions about the support available for less experienced front-line staff who are often over-stretched due to high vacancy and sickness rates. Simultaneously demand for services is increasing, not just in terms of numbers, but also in the complexity of that demand, be it health services working with ageing populations or poor mental health or schools responding to children who, as a result of the pandemic have missed education or, in the case of very young children have lower than expected levels of speech development. These challenges are being exacerbated by broader social and economic trends including a decade of low productivity, the high costs of childcare and housing relative to wages and, more recently, the increase in hybrid working and the costs of living crisis.

It will be tempting for public service leaders, faced with these challenges, to see ever greater control as the only viable response: making it more exacting for people accessing services to prove themselves eligible, setting ever-tighter boundaries around the support organisations can offer, managing front-line staff more tightly and closing cases more quickly. But such approaches simply shift need from one service to another or create different kinds of crises. Radical change is needed, but what form should it take?

Re-thinking public services

We need a fundamental rethink of the role of public services. At the heart of this new vision is a different way of understanding the relationship between people who deliver services and people who use those services that is based on working with and building people’s strengths. Strengths-based working implies that people who are usually seen as the passive recipients of services have knowledge that has value for shaping their own lives, the service offered to them, and service systems more generally. Strengths-based approaches do not ignore needs, but they do look beyond them. They do not impose a single, uniform service on people according to what the service regards as their needs. Practice must be person-led: with the individual identifying their own strengths and goals and working towards them at their own pace, rather than the service deciding what matters.

There is a risk these approaches are over-simplified. At worst they can simply result in ignoring people’s needs and looking vaguely to ‘the community’ to provide more support than services. But genuine strengths-based working seeks to empower people to build their capabilities and increase their self-efficacy and sense of agency. Lots of professionals across different parts of the public sector will argue that they already work in this way and of course, some do and many aspire to. However, we argue that to really embed these ways of working and to make them the norm, not the exception, we also need a fundamental re-think of what it is to work in public services. It’s not just about wishing that current roles were more valued and therefore better paid. We need to actually create new roles which are more valued by the people they support and the people doing the job. People who deliver strengths-based services must be able to listen and empathise deeply, and to be able to recognise the wider context of a person’s life, such as the inequalities they may be experiencing. They will have a strong commitment to reflective practice. Their work will tend to be psychologically informed, including a high awareness of the impact of trauma on people’s behaviour and capacity. Fundamentally, the relationship between people who seek and people who offer services will change dramatically from the highly managed, narrowly defined transactions characterising current services.

Strengths-based working therefore requires deep changes to the structure and culture of organisations and local systems at every level. Without radical reform of the organisations and systems that deliver public services, relational and strengths-based approaches struggle to take hold and tend to remain as small-scale projects, over-reliant on the drive and determination of a few charismatic and driven individuals. There are some common characteristics of strengths-based organisations:

  • Values-led recruitment which attracts people who have strong communication skills, self-awareness and empathy.
  • Teams delivering strengths-based and co-produced services tend towards self-management.
  • Authentic Leaders who also embody the qualities of strengths-based front-line workers, such as self-awareness, strong values and self-reflection.
  • Co-creation – the idea that people with lived experience are integral to the design and running of services – will feature in organisational governance structures.
  • Collecting evidence for learning rather than control, and striving to be learning organisations which are constantly innovating.
  • Strengths-based organisations recognise that solutions to the challenges people face normally need system-wide responses and that the system can often be a cause of some of the challenges that people face. They therefore tend to create flatter organisational structures with porous organisational boundaries, based on networks rather than hierarchies, where knowledge can flow across organisational boundaries and new innovative solutions can be developed both within and across organisations.

So, a strengths-based approach changes the power balance in services, first giving more autonomy to front-line staff teams and secondly helping people who use services to avoid becoming stuck in a dependent role. Empowering people requires empowered, local public services and workers. A radically different approach is needed and at the heart of this approach are relational services that focus on people’s strengths. We are not the only people arguing for this, but what makes our approach distinct is that we go much further in describing the skills and capabilities that public service staff need to work relationally and the kinds of teams, organisations and systems that are needed.


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