Stronger communities

When you work with families, it’s clear that some have challenging lives and need support from the state, whilst others with similar challenges are more resilient and able to deal with their own problems more readily. So what is it about the second group of families that we can learn about and apply to the first? There will be a variety of reasons but part of it is the extent to which families are connected to their friends, extended family members and their community.

The public sector does not always have the resources to offer direct help to every family that needs it, but we can work with communities, build local capacity and connections that in turn help families to have better lives. And there are now compelling examples from around the country where local authorities and other public services have worked with their communities, shining a light on amazing things done in neighbourhoods, helping people to be connected to each other, and to solve the problems the community wants to solve.

We’ll start this blog exploring some of the next practice described in ADCS Pillars & Foundations, and then test how these approaches are being embraced.

Bowling Alone

Back in the late 90s, Robert D Putnam was exploring community capacity (social capital in American) across the US. Community capacity is the extent to which people are connected to and supported by their communities, the communities have resources to draw on and are able to solve problems themselves.

The findings in Putnam’s excellent book Bowling Alone showed that the northern states tended to have high social capital, whilst southern states were lower. And furthermore, there is a correlation between a range of outcomes and social capital demonstrated through plotting a simple graph (note the findings show correlation and don’t prove causality at this stage).

This is the correlation for educational outcomes.

And crime.


And remarkably the same applies for cancer, stroke recovery, tolerance, happiness. It’s early days in applying the research in the UK, but for those of us who believe in early help, the results are tantalising.

What is a community?

So let’s look at some of the context. We talk about communities but I sometimes wonder if we’ve created a geographic convenience rather than a helpful construct to public service design. In the past we thought about community strategies in terms of buildings and homogeneous identities in a neighbourhood. I was struck a few weeks ago by my seven-year-old daughter talking about her friends at school, how she develops, makes connections and becomes more resilient is already personal to her. My daughter’s community is not mine — so how can we think of geographically coincident people as homogenous?

Perhaps each resident has a different community. I’m tending towards a revised model which thinks of individual resilience connected through four webs:

  • Local geographic connections
  • Family and friends who support each other
  • Communities of interest such as work, football club, religious activities, etc
  • And digital connections which whilst un-personal are good at some aspects of resilience such as advice and guidance and bringing together strangers with similar interests across a wider sphere.

As well as the direct support, maybe there’s something inherent in community connections that helps people to be more resilient, and the body reacts positively. We know loneliness in the UK works like that, and feelings of inequality probably have a similar but inverse impact. Take a look at the work of the previous public health lead for Scotland who talked about the chemical changes when a person has a hug.

We might therefore think of individualised strategies for each local resident — where we are working with a family then how do we strengthen their relationship with their extended family, or connect them to online guidance or peer-support groups. There are some great charities which help care leavers to have many more extended family connections and to be more resilient.

And for those we are not engaged with, how do we encourage communities that are looking out for each other? How do we have an individual understanding of everyone’s communities — surely that’s a ridiculous approach? To a certain extent I agree it will be difficult to personalise our support to families and vulnerable individuals, but technology such as predictive data, mapping of community resources and digital communication might enable more progressive support that is viewed as a help to families.


For example, some areas such as building their direct capacity in the neighbourhood, such as parent champions, service navigators and advocates and even community members who are trained in Family Group Conferencing. Going back to the New Zealand roots of FGC being about the family and community helping themselves.

Other Supporting Families areas are seed funding small projects in the community. Hundreds and hundreds of small projects with perhaps £5k to help them to get started and provide support and connections to families and vulnerable citizens.

And other areas are starting to connect people. Whenever a family is supported by the public sector they are left more resilient and better connected. Whenever something goes wrong in your life, your first thought is not that I need help from social care or the police, it’s that you can draw on family or friends, or you know how to navigate the vast amount of support that’s out there. We should leave the families we work with with the same skill and resources. Durham Council is employing VCS Alliance workers to understand the vast range of community and voluntary assets and services and to help social workers and early help staff to understand what is on offer. Almost all family plans now include explicit support from either the community or a voluntary service — helping to reduce future demand.

And there are digital ways to connect people. It’s not long until we will be able to join together the mapping of community assets with our predictive understanding of families’ needs. Reaching out and connecting people, in a personalised way, to something that might be a welcome and early help. It’s through action and not words that we will change the relationship between public services and the communities we serve, through this sort of change.

A community programme

In the ADCS Pillars & Foundations publication we have an example of a programme model around community resilience. Describing four universal objectives of community resilience interventions, mapping activities, and then developing a way to measure impact.

From the diagram the four objectives of community resilience are:

  1. Connections between individuals and groups
  2. People know where to get help, both locally and from digital help
  3. Individuals and families develop their emotional resilience, this is key and curiously there aren’t a lot of activities or services in this box
  4. And we want a culture of reciprocity and lowering inhibitions so people are more willing to reach out and help each other, perhaps through a deal between public services and citizens.

Mapped to the four boxes are example activities, although there will be many more in your local area. As a specific example, the aim of a local activity such as painting the playground fence is not rust-resistance, but because people build connections through the activities, and are able to draw on each other for help in the future if they need it.

And it’s possible to test the effectiveness of these activities, looking at the impact on the four objectives of connections, navigation, emotional resilience and culture.


In Wigan, their community programme is centred around an explicit Deal between the local authority and community, which has now evolved into a range of deals for different groups within the community.

People in Wigan are expected to play an active role in their community, supporting each other and forming connections that help families to be self-reliant and independent. The shared expectation for residents and for the local authority is laid out in an informal Deal which sets out to reinvent the role of public services in society. There are several deals, for example for children, for older people and for businesses.

The previous Wigan CE talks about their aims:

“It’s very much about residents feeling they’ve got a say over services, and what happens in their local patch, and building up local networks. People don’t just work for a GP practice or school — they work for the place… We’re now moving into much more community-based, networked local solutions, trying to support people to be the best they can be, throwing away the clipboard and the processing aspect of what we used to do.”

Many local authorities have seen the impact of the Wigan Deal and are planning similar approaches to engagement, often as a deal between the whole public sector and local residents.

It’s fair to say that as a country, we are still testing and developing approaches to community capacity. But it is equally clear that we will look to the community in the future, whether it is about relational practice, working collaboratively with families, new deals, community assets or simply helping people to connect to each other. What is certain is that many local authorities see it as their role to lead the system of resources to their communities needs, improve the experience and relationship with citizens, and deliver better outcomes and reduced demand to acute services.


ADCS Pillars & Foundations:

Bowling Alone: