Skip to main content

Community social work: the shift from what's wrong to what's strong

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Knowledge and skills

Strengths based, assets based, empowering… these approaches are the buzz works we are hearing in adult social care these days. I blogged earlier this week about the effectiveness of group work skills and approaches in our practice and wanted to follow with a companion piece focusing on community social work.

The Care Act has rightly put the principle of wellbeing at the heart of social care. It’s placed a strong imperative on us to work alongside people to support them to have the lives that matter to them. This is about working with individuals and families within people’s communities and neighbourhoods to create possibilities for better wellbeing.

I am pleased to welcome Cormac Russell MD Nurture Development and Faculty member ABCD Institute as my guest blogger, providing a perspective on this and his work in Asset Based Community Development approaches and how this may assist with the practice culture changes we need and want.

Cormac_Russell_01 (1) (1)Community social work: the shift from what’s wrong to what’s strong

Where does social work fit within such a shift?

"Savvy social workers in the UK know there are certain issues that are best addressed by individuals within the context of their families and communities, and that the role of social work is to act like a line backer in an American football game. To extend the metaphor, the social worker’s primary function is to act as a blocker to anything that stifles or does harm to an individual, family and community.

They see the people they serve not as passive consumers of their intervention or case management, but as active producers of alternative futures. Hence, they draw their energy and meaning as professionals from seeing people in association with each other, exercising the three powers of citizenship:

  1. Identify their own problems/possibilities
  2. Identify solutions/responses to these challenges
  3. Take personal or collective action.

The challenge to social work: back to the future

Anyone who engaged in Social Work in the 80s will attest to the fact that its practices have changed substantially over the last few decades. While practices of 30 years ago were by no means perfect, they were, where possible, orientated away from dependence on institutional responses and towards interdependence in community life. This was not because practitioners wanted to save their systems money, but because they wanted to save people from their systems. Interventions and relief remained a significant feature of Social Work in that era, but not the primary one.

The orientation in general was more towards citizenship, and far less clientalistic and individualistic than it is today. Hence, the words of the Aboriginal elder, activist and educator Lila Watson, would have been a touchstone for Social Work practitioners in those days:

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Practice has changed over the course of three decades, and in my opinion, in the last two in particular, we have seen a mission creep away from Community Social Work to an assessment and case-management based approach, where the focus is now largely on individual pathologies, conditions and deviances. The labels that emerge from standard assessment processes all too often obscure people’s stories and stifle the creativity of Social Workers to respond in non prescriptive ways.

The costs of this migration away from capacity oriented approaches that mobilise the assets of individuals, families and communities have been incredibly high. They include:

  • People we wish to help become known by their deficits and labels, instead of their capacities and narratives;
  • Resources flow to those providing ameliorative, one-sided compensatory programmes and services-which often separate individuals from their networks- and not to those considered in need;
  • Active citizenship retreats in the face of expertise, and civic functions become outsourced to professionals;
  • Entire communities become mapped and defined by their deficits, and in turn internalise that map so fully, they come to believe that they are powerless to change anything themselves, and/or in association with their family and community. They come to believe that the only way things will get better, is if an expert from outside comes in to make them so.

Rosebeth Moss-Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School gets to the heart of the problem when she says:

When we do change to people they experience as violence; when people do change for themselves they experience it as liberation

 What does this mean in practice?

Asset-Based Community Development in action is plain to see in all the Learning Sites we have set up across the UK. The map below situates where these efforts are rooted (and we are about to get under way in Aberdeen):

nurture developmentAs Mick Ward, Interim Chief Officer, Leeds City Council, notes: “Asset-Based Community Development is best explained by stories. In the Middleton neighbourhood, they (Middleton Neighbourhood Network whom Nurture Development supported to develop an ABCD community building approach) found Robin Silverwood, a retired parks attendant and a keen whittler. Robin now leads groups of men in the area on walks to identify appropriate wood, they then go to his garden shed, or local community facility, where he teaches them to carve these into walking sticks which are then in turn shared with local older people.

In Harehills, local poet Michelle Scally Clarke set up workshops for women from UK, Pakistan and Afghanistan to come together to produce moving and insightful poems, which they shared in the final week of the project to a small audience. Some of the poetry was written onto tie-dyed fabric and will be displayed at community events in and around the Harehills area.

The group intends to visit care homes in the area to share their work with groups that find it difficult to attend events in the community. These stories go on and on and they have had such an impact that several of the Neighbourhood Networks are talking about adopting this approach as they have seen first-hand the approach can achieve.

ABCD is more than just setting up a few groups, it is about a basic shift in thinking – moving away from a deficit model (what is wrong with a community) to an asset model (what does a community have?)

The opportunity: reclaiming community social work heritage in the UK

Most Social Workers -and practitioners in general- I meet these days, are clear that they want to work with the whole person, and that means focusing on their narrative and not their labels. It also means keeping the people they serve as connected to their supportive social networks as possible, and where such networks do not exist, beginning to address the roots of those disconnections. In other words most practitioners dislike the current reality and aspire to reclaim the traditions of Community Social Work and build on them.

Today, because of the Care Act, the aspiration to make community social work the new norm, appears wholly viable. The Care Act opens the door to liberate existing good practice and to cultivate deeper practices that support what matters to people, and enables them to achieve the lives they want for themselves. As well as moving towards Community Social Work, by implication, it calls for a movement away, as far as is possible of course, from the assessment care management model of Social Work that has dominated for the last 20 years.

It is a shift towards an alternative future that, ironically, has had a long and proud tradition in the not too distant past. No doubt, therefore, that this shift from a deficit-oriented style of social work, towards a more asset-based approach will be welcomed by the vast majority of communities and practitioners alike. That said we must be mindful, that as with all transitions, we need to mind the gap between where we are and where we want to get to, as we shift our focus from what’s wrong to what strong, and enable communities to use what’s strong to address what wrong, wherever possible."

Cormac Russell, MD Nurture Development, Faculty member ABCD Institute
If you have questions about this article you can email me directly at

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by liz posted on

    Problem will occur when well meaning social workers start applying ABC to their assessment and care plans .Risks should be also considered and recognised especially where vulnerable people are concerned .

  2. Comment by Liam Hughes posted on

    Social workers needs to embrace face- to- face work with individuals, families, groups and communities. This requires high levels of skill in group work, networking and mobilising community support as well as casework and counselling. Above all, it requires values rooted in mutual support as well as self-help. The 20-year silence about community development in social work policy and education has been a mistake, and now there is an opportunity for some rebalancing.
    (An aside - how have we reached the situation where newly qualified social workers are ineligible to join the counselling registers? Are they being given skills in CBT and mindfulness? Or is their role simply to be service administrators and the "soft cops" of the new welfare state?)

  3. Comment by Kim Woodyer-byers posted on

    Refreshing and all social work teams need to read this! Even if they are made to, some of it will sink in.


Leave a comment

We only ask for your email address so we know you're a real person

By submitting a comment you understand it may be published on this public website. Please read our privacy notice to see how the GOV.UK blogging platform handles your information.