What makes partnerships work
Partnerships are a central part of the delivery of modern public services and indeed are common practice in the private sector. A high and increasing proportion of government expenditure is channelled through public-service partnerships, though figures seem hard to come by. As government seeks to find answers to some of the seemingly intractable problems, it is clear that one organisation is unlikely to be able to provide the solution.
It is therefore vitally important to ensure that partnerships work. Quite a lot has been written about public-service partnerships and how to make them work, but much of it is in long unwieldy documents with check-lists and criteria that are either incomplete or not prioritised.
To help people responsible for setting up and/or managing partnerships, I have examined this literature in order to identify the very best documents and derive from them a few key recommendations. If readers think that I have missed documents which contain a really different and valuable message, please do let me know. However, I have not included documents purely focused on producing assessment tools (with one exception – see below).
One of the first reports on public service partnership management was produced by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). It was a 35-page report entitled Building Effective Partnerships. It was produced by CIPFA's financial and management panel and included some useful definitional work, tools to help plan, manage and assess partnerships and detailed listing of skills requirements.
The report's themes are echoed in all subsequent reports that I reviewed:
- the need for trust, understanding, communication and openness
- the importance of flexibility, skills, innovation and risk management
- the critical role played by compatibility (of organisations, people, objectives, timescales)
- the requirement for parity in relationships between partners and for 'win-win' thinking.
The Audit Commission produced the 80-page report Governing Partnerships: Bridging the Accountability Gap in 2005. The key recommendations relate to the need for:
- local public organisations to be clear as to why they are using partnerships, what they are trying to achieve and how – how many partnerships they are trying to do it with, and what they are spending on each partnership
- improved governance – leadership, decision-making, scrutiny, risk management, systems, but with the proviso that governance work should be proportionate to risk
- comprehensive agreements, protocols and governing documents to be in place, and for these to be regularly reviewed with all parties
- better explanation to service users and the wider public about how partnerships work
- clarity of criteria for judging partnerships
- stepping back from partnerships if they are not achieving objectives.
The Strategic Partnering Taskforce of the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) produced the 49-page Assessing Strategic Partnership: The Partnership Assessment Tool in conjunction with the Nuffield Institute of Health in 2003. The most valuable parts of this document for our purposes are the six principles of partnership that the authors suggest that their research and fieldwork have shown form the building blocks for successful partnership.
These are to:
- recognise and accept the need for partnership
- develop clarity and realism of purpose
- ensure commitment and ownership
- develop and maintain trust
- create clear and robust partnership arrangements
- monitor, measure and learn.
Each of these principles is expanded into a series of factors for the partnership to use for assessment.
More importantly, the report suggests how to deal with areas of concern identified in the assessment, in particular through:
- external facilitation in diagnosis of problems, resolution and follow-up
- communicating the results of the assessment
- conducting further assessments
- the partners agreeing a process for action planning to improve matters.
The Business Services Association represents primarily private-sector partners in outsourcing partnerships. It produced a 36-page report, Outsourced and Business Services – Proven Providers, in November 2009. This document is worth examining because it represents the private-sector partners' viewpoint and also because it represents a synthesis of previous reports written by many of the BSA's large members such as Serco, IBM and Accenture.
The main recommendations of this report include the following:
- The need for trust by public-sector organisations in private-sector partners, and for private-sector organisations to be transparent and focus on achieving innovation to improve traditional delivery processes, to encourage that trust.
- A reduction in barriers to innovation – private-sector organisations are willing to match fees to outcomes, but contract owners are rarely empowered or motivated to change contracts in this way, so as to improve outcomes. Instead, they tend to aim to preserve the status quo.
- Tthe public-sector maintaining accountability for standards and outcomes, and ensuring that those who let contracts have the experience to manage them. Inexperienced, poorly skilled contract managers tend to fall back on rule books for managing contracts, leading to failure.
- Risk should be shared, not pushed 100 per cent onto private-sector partners.
My conclusion is that:
- there is strong consensus about why partnerships work – or not
- the issues are well summarised in the six principles in the ODPM report and the related sub-principles.
- partnerships are not new – they have existed for many years in many domains, public and private.
- partnership problems arise because simple and well-known and well-researched principles are not followed.
The overall conclusion is relatively straightforward – partnerships fail not because of ignorance of the principles of partnerships, but mainly because of one or more of the following reasons:
- it is not realised, or realised too late, that partnership principles should be applied to a particular venture or situations
- it is realised that these principles should be applied, but for some reason the main protagonists are not willing to apply them or cannot persuade others to do so
- the principles are understood, the partnership is known to be problematic, but the protagonists are not willing to work together to resolve the problem or do not know how to
- the partnership set up or implementation is rushed
- key partnership principles, particularly shared objectives or measures, are deliberately or unknowingly ignored
- the general principles of managing programmes, projects and delivery are well understood by some or all partners, but are somehow 'left behind'
- the partners themselves have a poor record in managing programmes, projects or delivery.
In all cases, it seems that an external facilitation approach is key, as is adapting the classic principles of change management to resolve any problems, whether they be structural, financial or behavioural.
However, note that there could be other reasons. For example, use of measures which are unrelated to the real objectives of policy (in terms of, for example, citizen benefit), poor budgeting and planning, which are not specific to partnerships but might apply in any area of policy making.
Why are WCL interested in partnerships?
We often find ourselves working with different partners as part of our commissioned work. It is clear that some partnerships work better than others and successful partnerships almost always deliver successful outcomes.
In some cases, it seems clear to us that the origin of problems with a partnership lie in more general problems with organisational performance and/or failures to adopt a programme management approach, and associated problems with incentives and structures. Partnership charters, risk registers and just turning up to partnership meetings are not enough. Partnerships must be managed properly, and probably more intensely than work taking place just within the confines of one organisation.
We are very interested in what makes some partnerships work while others do not. I am working with my WCL colleagues on a piece of research on what makes good partnerships. This includes a survey – currently being piloted – that will produce deeper understanding, analysis and a set of recommendations. The specific aim of the research is to provide additional insight into what ensures a successful outcome from a management perspective. The research does not aim to provide detailed norms for partnership success – as you can see from my literature review, these are available from many sources. Instead, it aims to identify what are the critical aspects of success in partnership management including value for money.
The research questionnaire, that we are developing asks clients to focus on a particular partnership that has achieved at least some of its objectives. This does not imply that the partnership has ended, of course; merely that it has reached a stage where it is possible to answer questions about how the partnership works or worked to deliver results. Once we have enough responses, we shall develop a benchmarking tool to help you assess the quality of your partnership(s). We’ll use this together with other sources, including our extensive work on the management of programmes, projects and delivery, to provide you with:
- rapid, concise qualitative insights into what needs to improve in your partnership(s)
- guidance on how to improve partnership performance, for policy teams, partners, front-line staff and of course the citizens or customers whom the partnership is intended to benefit.