Forging Partnerships Across The Fault Lines

Partnerships may be the key to realising The Big Society but they need sophisticated handling to work effectively across the fault-lines. Effective partners engage tactically not idealistically.


Partnership working is being heralded as The BIG ANSWER to The Big Society, Localisation, and on a tumultuous public spending review. What’s not to like? It is true, partnerships will be an essential lever of The Big Society, but not in the idealised form that politicians would have us believe. Partnerships have innate adversarial tensions built into their relationships, and these can only be worked with – they cannot be eradicated.

To make the most of partnerships, the partnership leaders need to manage these tensions – as far as possible lining up member organisations behind a vision of what the partnership might be, whilst helping members to work with the frustrations and contradictions where it falls short of these aspirations. Equally, participant organisations need to understand that partnerships are a shifting coalition of interests, complex and messy, with unpredictable consequences. Partners need to engage tactically not idealistically, mindful of the pressures on other member bodies, engaging in satisfying alliances for a finite time within the current constraints, where they can see a clear advantage.

I guess the current ConLibDem Coalition Government is a perfect example of this  – The Cameron-Clegg pairing is an arranged marriage with possibilities and potential and risks and dangers. How can they make the most of what has been thrust upon them? If they misunderstand what is possible and presume to be in love, they will burn up their energy by flirting, seducing, squabbling and divorcing – missing the opportunity to have a significant workable relationship! That partnership will last (only) as long as each party can co-opt the opposition and has sufficient goodwill to involve each other in co-creating solutions. It will break up when the partners run out of goodwill or when their differences overwhelm their commonality.

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Learning From Local Strategic Partnerships

Although partnerships take many forms, I think the experience of Local Strategic Partnerships provides a particularly rich picture of the fault-lines that cut across effective working. Tensions emerge most clearly after Government spending allocations, and Council or PCT tendering rounds. These tend to bring into sharp relief the painful reality that there isn’t economic parity between members of partnerships, and partnerships are ultimately not democratic. Here are a few examples:

  • Although they don’t participate directly in partnerships, Central Government departments can have major impacts on these groups. They tend to grapple with espoused values of localisation vs their need to influence what happens regionally or risk getting slated in the tabloids or getting it in the neck from the electorate. Their main official tools of control are blunt instruments: funding, targets and inspections.
  • Central Government sometimes makes partnerships a criterion for funding local statutory bodies – thus confusing process (ie. “create a partnership”) with intended outcomes (eg. “reduce violent crime by 10%”). These statutory bodies rush to create partnerships in order to meet funding criteria, and the groups then struggle with disingenuous motives and unclear outcomes.
  • Local Statutory Bodies (PCTs, local councils) wrestle with the tension between democratising their decision-making, whilst feeling burdened by their safety liabilities, procurement legislation, and accountability to central government. They give out confusing messages to partnership members about their sphere of influence.
  • Government Departments can find themselves concerned to leverage positive results more quickly (eg. In time for elections), and allocate new funding that has to be spent rapidly on high profile initiatives. Local statutory bodies then struggle with the tension between taking rapid autocratic decisions to allocate funding within the timescale, vs losing out on the funding.
  • Local Statutory Organisations do not behave as unitary entities – different parts of each organisation pull in different directions and take contradictory decisions. (eg. Adult Services increases funding to a carers’ charity while Central Services evicts the charity from the council’s low-rental premises.) Individual members of staff representing these statutory organisations get it in the neck from partner organisations and can feel very put-upon.
  • Smaller Provider / Community Organisations wrestle with the tension between maintaining a presence in cumbersome LSP meeting structures where the sources of funding are, whilst trying to find capacity to deliver essential services in the community.
  • Smaller organisations feel compelled to tender for service contracts in order to earn income to survive, which can distort their original service mission and values.
  • Central and Local Government struggle to consult directly with service users without the mediation of local community groups. They both believe that they have the mandate of their electorate.
  • Local Community Organisations fire fight daily to resolve the crises of their users. They believe they have the mandate of the disenfranchised, and that they represent the “true” voice of service users.
  • If the partnership focuses on the details of the personal experiences of individual service users, then senior Statutory members disengage, stop attending, and the Partnership loses its “bite”. If the partnership focuses on very corporate matters, then local Community Groups and Service Users become alienated and the Partnership loses it’s “user-credibility”.

Future partnerships may take different forms, and may have different fault lines, but the underlying theme remains:

For a partnership to be effective, larger participant organisations have to manage the tensions between commissioning and providing services, and service agencies need to strike a balance between collaboration and competition. The successful players in a partnership are the organisations that recognise these dynamics and decide to engage tactically – rather than those that attempt to be idealistic and all-encompassing.

The successful partnership is able to see the relationships for what they are, rather than believing the espoused rhetoric of democracy. If these tensions are not managed effectively, conflict erupts, all institutions retreat, and everybody loses out – especially service users.

If the partnership can acknowledge the contradictions, and work with them in a measured and contained way, greater trust will evolve over time. Decision making processes will gradually become more consultative if partners demonstrate mutual understanding and learn together.

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