Currently there is growing interest in social action of various types, including volunteering, peer support, befriending, cooperatively owned services and coproducing outcomes with organisations. New, free downloads of guidance developed by the New Economics Foundation on behalf of the Office for Civil Society describe social action, make the case for public sector investment to mainstream this as a way of achieving outcomes and describe how commissioning must change to do so.
Social action is not new and increasingly conventional commissioning incorporates this, by for example, recruiting volunteers to augment existing services. Sadly, this often occurs without proper engagement of those that will benefit from social action or indeed those that will make it happen. The service as it is, continues for the foreseeable future without its relevance, effectiveness or efficiency being challenged. We refer to this as asset-aware commissioning.
We see the potential for social action being much greater, forming part of a wider transition away from paternalistic, top-down, organisationally designed, controlled and provided, one-size-fits-all, services. Done well, this transition leads to increased interest in asset-based services, supports or actions that are designed with people and communities and centred on their lives. For this wider transition to be successful social action must be accompanied by a parallel shift to asset-based commissioning which we define as;
Enabling people and communities, together with organisations, to become equal co-commissioners and coproducers, and also via self-help, make best complementary use of all assets to improve whole life and community outcomes.’
Asset based commissioning differs from conventional commissioning in a number of ways, including that it:
- Treats people and communities as active providers of assets and equals in designing services and coproducing outcomes.
- Replaces rigid, inflexible contracts with adaptive processes that enable services and supports to be tailored flexibly to differing community and individual circumstances.
- Requires significant collaboration between providers
- Recognises a provider is ‘anyone, group or organisation that in any way contributes to an outcome irrespective of financial reward’. Volunteers, both formal or informal, are therefore providers, along with individuals themselves, through self-help.
Asset-based commissioning ensures that the people that matter, discover and articulate outcomes that matter. The result is the best possible mix of individual, community and state assets and emergence of new social action opportunities that replace, fill gaps left by, or complement existing services. We believe asset based commissioning creates excellent conditions for social action, leading to a virtuous circle with social action strengthening the asset base, in turn leading to more social action, further strengthening and yet more action, etc.
Communities should be encouraged to draw on their own assets, where possible flourishing without input from, or control by, the public sector. However, we recognise that access to organisational assets such as buildings, transport, financial advice etc. may be needed to establish social action or enable this to happen at scale.
Asset based commissioning can enable often-excluded individuals and groups to both drive and benefit from existing and new social action, examples including social prescribing that links people into community activities; websites that help people with shared concerns to get in touch and organise; community organising and capacity building support for voluntary sector and community organisations.
Social action can make a valuable contribution to individuals and communities achieving outcomes and thriving, without being part of a commissioning process. However, we believe sucessful embedding and scaling is more likely when this is an integral part of asset based commissioning.
When reflecting on the above ask yourself the following questions.
- To what extent does our organisation encourage social action?
- What forms of social action do we pursue?
- To what extent is our approach to social action successful?
- Is social action an integral part of a wider process of asset based commissioning?
- What more could be done to realise the full potential of social action for our community and organisation?
1. Office for Civil Society (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/enabling-social-action-guidance)
 Field, R. and Miller, C. (2017) Asset-based commissioning; Better Outcomes, Better Value. Bournemouth: Bournemouth University Available at: http://www.ncpqsw.com/publications/asset-based-commissioning/