What Does it Take for Organisations to be Better Partners? Would your organisation sign up to a ‘good partners’ agreement? La Toyah McAllister-Jones is a Clore Social Fellow. She has posted a series of blogs on her research on partnerships and joint-working over six weeks.
Part One – Barriers to being better partners
As a 2013 Clore Social Fellow, a core component of the programme is the completion of a piece of practice-based research. I elected to research partnerships and joint-working, something both of interest to me and essential within the sector. Having worked in the homelessness sector for over fifteen years, I’ve become a strong advocate for both formal and informal partnerships. I believe that when the right stakeholders are involved, and a clear, shared understanding of purpose exists, effective partnerships can lead to better outcomes for everyone involved.
A host of stakeholders are involved in the delivery of services to homeless people, all of whom aim to increase the economic and social outcomes of their service users. Each has different agendas, funding dynamics and accountability systems, which can all serve as barriers to a partnership’s success.
As part of my research I hosted two round table events on collaboration and partnerships. These brought together a number of people from across the business, public and social sectors, representing a range of stakeholders. What followed were rich conversations that highlighted a number of sticking points, including barriers due to language, accountability frameworks, organisational values and differing agendas. However the most unique and significant theme was a distinct lack of organisational guidance about how to be a ‘good partner’. Many contributors highlighted that they had little experience of working within an organisation that had a clear ethos or an explicit understanding of what it means to be a ‘good partner’. This stimulated further discussions around on-going training for staff, encouraging reflective-learning and developing a competency based framework for partnerships. When organisations develop a clear, value-based approach to being a ‘good partner’ they are then able to ensure that all staff can articulate what it means to be a good partner and their what their role is within that vision.
So what does it take to be a good partner? If there was a ‘good partners’ agreement, would you sign up to it? Over the next six weeks I’ll be exploring this further. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow the conversation on Twitter with #bebetterpartners
Part Two – Integration and collaboration in health services
As I listened to Ed Miliband give his keynote speech at the recent Labour Party conference, I was struck by two of his commitments: his desire to build a mass membership Party and his call for more integrated health services.
I recently wrote an article about community organisation being key in building the Party’s membership, which concerns the process of building a power base from the bottom up; from within our communities. I also spent six weeks working alongside Movement for Change, with the intention of gaining a better understanding of organisation development within a political context. Organising is very much a relational process, given that it involves recreating the relationships between people and power; or people and politics, i.e. building partnerships.
Mr Miliband’s call for ‘a truely integrated National Health Service’ is admirable. The future of our health service must be about integration and collaboration. In fact, in these times of austerity and dwindling resources, the time is ripe to rethink how we deliver public services.
Is it entirely possible that collaboration and partnerships lie at the heart of this new vision?
As a 2013 Clore Social Fellow, I am currently completing research into partnerships in the delivery of services to homeless people. An important component of this work has been the two roundtable discussions I have hosted in recent days. The rationale of both events was to find the answer to the following question:
‘In the delivery of services of the vulnerable and socially excluded, what changes do we need to make existing practice in order to become more effective partners?’
Based on the number of fascinating discussions I have enjoyed in recent days, it is truly heartening to hear that many people believe that partnership can transform how we deliver services for vulnerable and socially excluded groups.
However, there are many barriers that we still face. Before presenting some of my research findings, I shall blog extensively about the challenges identified throughout October.
Collaborate at London South Bank University, where I am currently undertaking an internship, has generously offered to host the event called ‘Cafe on Partnerships’. It is my hope that you will all get involved with the discussion on Twitter (#goodpartners)
I have recently discovered a concept ‘Partnership by Default’ (thanks Rick Henderson!). At Homeless Link, Rick has introduced a new way of working, which commits all new projects to the ‘partnership by default’ project, unless there is a case for going it alone.
Of course, there is guidance to support this approach, Partnerships, even at the best of times, are seldom easy; but it’s the concept that has really captured my imagination.
Just imagine if the future starting point for delivering services was a ‘Partnership by Default’ model!
Part 3 – Reflective Practice
As a 2013 Clore Social Fellow, I can honestly say that I have never been so reflective until this year. Using reflective practice as a learning process is a core part of the programme’s message and development process for all Fellows.
And it’s not always easy.
To really be reflective, it requires us to stop ‘doing’ and start ‘being’. For me this is a challenge. I am a doer. But more on that later.
In this blog, I want to explore the knowledge I received from these roundtables from my colleagues and other professionals in the business of social justice.
Are we a sector of ‘doers’, making us more resistant to reflective practice?
Personally, the key to understanding reflective practice for me was understanding firstly how we learn and then secondly, my preferred learning style. As a natural ‘Activist/Pragmatist’ (Honey & Mumford), I am predisposed to the experiential side of learning and not a ‘natural’ reflector. I am happiest when I am ‘doing’; ‘being’, however, is more of a challenge.
I was talking with a colleague about my experience in delivering action learning in the homelessness sector in my previous role. Whilst this was definitely one of the most fulfilling parts of the job, it was also one of the most challenging. If you are part of an action learning set, it is definitely a commitment; both time and resources (in the context of a set member being away from their job for a whole day every 6-8 weeks). Suffice to say, the line managers I spoke to were not thrilled about the idea of losing staff that regularly, for that length of time. As we spoke about this, my colleague said “We are a sector of ‘doers’!”
This struck a chord. We are trying to ‘save the world’. We do not have time to reflect. That said, we wish we did though because we really do understand the benefits to doing so. But, alas, we don’t have the time!
Joking aside, it’s an interesting matter to ponder. Are ‘Activists’ over-represented in the social care professions? If so, does this mean more value is placed on doing the job as opposed to reflecting on how we do the job? These are broad questions and I don’t think it’s as simple as that but it does give one food for thought.
I asked this question at the event:
How does your organisation reflect and incorporate the learning from experience to inform future collaborative working practice?
The response was varied. A participant from a mental health background, who had the most experience of reflective learning, knowledgably discussed how it impacted on his work. Someone else who had worked in mental health services earlier in his career said:
We went “through a whole restructuring and a lot of people left and we had this big discussion about the loss of collective knowledge, so I said we are losing people who have worked in this borough for 20 years and even though there wasn’t a formal process by which their knowledge became departmental knowledge, when a colleague worked in the same room, he would wander over and say “Tom, have you ever dealt with this before?”. There is a huge amount of informal learning and reflection that does take place but actually systematising it is more difficult”.
The participants all understood the benefits of reflective practice, but from sector to sector, their experience of it as a learning process varied widely. One issue seemed to be that across the board, excluding mental health services, there is a lack of a coherent approach to using reflective practice as a learning process. Participants did not feel that this was a strong part of their personal or organisational practice.
In the context of joint-working, there is an opportunity to build a better understanding of each other and the environment in which we operate. There are a range of external, sectoral, organisational and personal factors that feed into our ability to be good partners. Reflective practice, within and across sectors, contributes to the skills and attributes needed to be a good partner.
In terms of how this relates to partnerships, there are many ways to view it:
- sharing experience of partnerships and how to improve contact
- reflecting to better understanding our own practice and responses to external environment
- ensuring that experience doesn’t ‘walk’ out the door’ when colleagues move on
- build a better understanding of the relationships involved
- sharing this approach across disciplines to better understand values/motivations
Part 4 – Strategic Partnerships
This research project began earlier in the year with two small roundtable discussions. This blog series discusses some of the key headlines from those discussions as a ‘preamble’ to the Cafe on Partnerships event on 5th November. Please feel free to post your comments, whether you agree or disagree. You can also get involved on Twitter, using #begoodpartners.
I asked the following question to the first set of participants:
- How can strategic partners provide robust support to operational partners in order to maintain the integrity and the will to work in partnership?
It was a spirited discussion, illuminating and very rich through the level of experience around the table. Below are three themes from that discussion.
1. What happens when there are no financial incentives to work in partnership?
We discussed the significance of strategic partnerships in relation to local informal partnerships. By ‘strategic partnerships’, I’m referring, of course, to those partnerships agreed and initiated at a senior/executive level. These types of partnerships usually have drivers and incentives; policy, funding or even both.
The Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health (JCPMH) is a good example of this type of strategic partnership. It is also worth highlighting that there is a values-based framework that underpins the JCPMH approach. This commitment to work in partnerships creates an environment where there are some shared aims and objectives between partners, with resources allocated to ensure that the wider strategic objectives are met.
The 2011 report, Commission Impossible, shaping place through strategic commissioning makes a strong case for this approach as the future of commissioning. The report identifies a number of barriers to achieving this. I was particularly interested in the following:
Barriers to joint-working – There was an almost unanimous view (91%)
that councils should take the lead on the strategic commissioning of local services across the public sector. Yet despite this, 70% thought that national structures were a barrier and 97% said there were challenges around reforming the siloed nature of budgets. Much emphasis has been placed on rhetorical partnership working but within the constraints of individual budgets, practical progress in terms of holistic and whole life provision can be limited. Within the council itself, there is a siloed separation of subject matter experts, commissioners, procurement managers and corporate and high-level priority setting.
This comes as little surprise.
So it would seem that even within a more strategic commissioning agenda, the age-old issues remain a challenge; the ‘siloed nature of budgets’ certainly appears to contribute to a siloed approach to practice.
But what happens when there are no financial incentives or external drivers to support and facilitate local partnerships? Savvy commissioning is certainly one approach to encourage a partnership approach. In a time when resources are limited yet need is on the increase, there is a serious question as to how partnerships can be integrated into service delivery and how this can be embedded and sustained across several disciplines at a local level.
As professionals, we are keen to ensure that ‘value’ is defined by our beneficiaries. I am interested in how we define our own ‘values’. In order to embed partnership in our practice which is not vulnerable to external factors like commissioning and the changing political landscapes, it occurs to be that the main driver must be about our collective values.
2. How should professionals respond when a local partnership is not working?
There was some time spent talking about how to overcome the obstacles of the joint-approach and how strategic partnerships might impact on this. Inevitably, we talked about having the space to build relationships. The professional relationships we nurture and sustain are central to the success of any type of partnerships. Then we started to talk about power and having the power to act, to make decisions. If the right people are at the table, with the authority and power to take the necessary decisions, we are more able to be accountable for our role ‘at the table’.
But this still requires a level of understanding between the strategic and operational leads that, in all frankness, is not always clear. A participant gave an example of a ‘partnership panel’ in the borough they work in, chaired by a director. This panel consists of service providers and beneficiaries and they all play a role in case allocation (within children’s services). Reflecting on this, the participant said:
“…you feel that you have got some back up behind you because this is the director who chairs this thing so you know you have got buy in. It is the top and it comes down and down and down the levels so yes, that’s where I have seen it working in a positive way as opposed to how I’ve seen it in other areas”.
This reflection touches on several things: leadership, accountability, trust, modelling behaviour, values (that word again!). When we meet obstacles in our joint-working, we need to know that there is a buy-in at the most senior level and so there is an understanding of what is expected from us, as a partner. The next steps, it seems to me, are directors stepping away from their chairing roles and empowering others to take on the reins of leadership and accountability and leadership. This of course raises questions around how senior colleagues stay in touch with what is really happening on the ground, but there are many systems and mechanisms for that kind of communication.
That leads me to the last theme:
“Leading from the top … and I think it is more soft skills, more of a story or a narrative. What is it an organisation is about? Why do we want collaborative working? Why do we believe in that?”
During this roundtable, I became very interested in the idea of a values-based approach to partnership within our organisations. Every organisation and has a mission statement, aims, guiding principles. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a specific set of values about what it means to be a ‘good partner’. So it interests me that people are talking about how strategic, more remote partnerships should model that behaviour for those of delivering services on the ground. What would that even begin to look like?
In working with people with multiple and complex needs, professionals expect to work in partnerships. I went to a conference recently where someone raised the point that the understanding of partnerships is almost entirely linked with the commissioning process now.
And let’s not forget that there are great potential there for strategic funding. Strategic funding together with early intervention and personalised budgets has the potential to make a huge impact on the lives of individuals. However, the need to be clear on the value we place on this approach as well as our values in being good partners should take precedent. It should inform how we enter into these kinds of arrangements and not the other way round.
Part 5 – Skills and Attributes
In this penultimate blog, I’d like to share a conversation the participants of the first round table had about the skills and attributes of a good partner. As we discussed how strategic partners could support local ones, I became interested in the experience of front line workers who attend multi-agency meetings with other professionals; doctors, psychiatrists, and social workers. This can be an intimidating environment to walk in to. What support is needed to improve that experience and interaction?
Many drivers feed into those multi-agency, multi-disciplinary meetings and impact on the capacity participants have to engage with the process. In my feedback following this discussion, I suggested that offering training to front-line staff might be a way of addressing this. One of the participants added:
“I was just thinking about what that training would look like really. What would I want a partner to learn, take away, what do they need?”
So I asked whether we could spend a few minutes thinking about what that might look like, and the responses included:
- ability to articulate own role and expectations
- ability to be a ‘critical friend’ within the process
- ability to recognise objectives of others in the process
- being aware of your own ‘offer’ to the group (not-over-promising)
- being realistic and the scope and scale of project, considering available resources
- taking personal responsibility for ‘turning up and being present’
- ability to be reflective about own practice
- knowledge of key partners
- being respectful of the range of skills offered by partners
- ability to step back and allow others to contribute their thinking
- range of soft skills; listening, awareness of body language, use of language
After the discussion I started to think about how to embed this in a learning and development programme. I spoke to Helen Giles, HR Director at Broadway about how this could be done. Helen talked about using a competency approach to embedding behaviours across an organisation. It is not just about identifying the behaviours, it is also about being clear on how those behaviours, or competencies, will be measured and what support will be offered to make sure those standards are met.
Something worth considering is that the process for embedding and developing those behaviours starts with recruitment. So just as important as ‘having the right people at the table‘, is recruiting the right people to begin with.
There are wider implications of developing a training package around partnership-working. It starts with the value we place on this way of working and our values about what it means to be a good partner. There is also a need to make time to develop our reflective practice. We cannot be good partners without first being more aware of how we respond and behave in a partnership environment.
However, leadership is significant. Embedding values and an approach to partnership must come from the top. We already know that a lot of good partnership work happens spontaneously at a local, service delivery level. However, without the strategic underpinning and support, these informal partnerships can struggle to achieve the outcomes for those beneficiaries who remain central to our work.
The current context of austerity continues to challenge us on how to deliver our much needed services. I cannot think of a time when our ability to be good partners has been more crucial.
The Cafe on partnerships event took place on Tuesday 5th November and was hosted byCollaborate.
Part 6 – Remember, remember the 5th of November
On Tuesday 5th November, Collaborate hosted my research event, a World Cafe on Partnerships. In the final blog of this series, I’d like to share some reflections on the morning.
Lord Victor Adebowale, Chair of the Collaborate Council and Chief Executive of Turning Point, opened with some provocative observations. He challenged that in our partnership practice there is a difference between the ideal and the reality. He reminded us of the reasons we should collaborate:
1) to make the most of limited resources
2) to make services easier to navigate.
Victor also said:
“But we are not very good at it.”
And this is at the heart of this research project, essentially I want to know how we get better at it.
During the Cafe conversations, we looked at the four themes; strategic partnership,values-based approach, reflective practice and the skills and attributes of a good partner. One of the really good things about the social sector is that we know how to talk to each other. The flip side of this is that quite often we immerse ourselves in those conversations which can become a sort of comfort blanket. What I wanted was to create was an environment that challenged people to engage in deep conversations in a purposeful and thoughtful way. Each theme addressed the same 3 questions:
As I sat in on some of those initial discussions, I found them focused and challenging; people were really thinking about how and what they wanted to contribute. All the participants had significant experience of working in partnership which meant everyone had something significant to contribute.
There were some surprises. Whilst it is clear that there is a need for resources, there was very little talk, if any, of austerity. Given the current economic environment, it is a difficult topic to avoid in a roomful of social sector professionals. The reference to resources was generally related to having the time and space to commit to a more focused approach. I found this really positive. I came away with the feeling that this is a course of action which can gain commitment despite financial constraints. People want to collaborate.
There was also a lack of discussion about leadership, which surprised me. Throughout the initial round-table, leadership was central to many of the conversations we had. Leadership will be key in developing partnership practice across the sector. The environment in which we work is complex; we must seek to influence leaders from the political environment, the sectors we work in and the organisations we work for if we are to create systemic, sustainable change. There is also personal accountability as colleagues and peers; partnerships are as much about individual responsibility as collective impact.
In earlier posts, I often link leaderships and values. It became clear that many people felt that whilst values are important, partnerships are not dependent on shared values. Shared outcomes are much more important. As participants discussed began to feedback on their Cafe conversations, this idea began to take shape. One participant challenged that often, partnerships are based on shared values, rather than shared goals. She then went further, suggesting that partnerships might be more succesful if organisations were to purposely seek to partner those who offer something different but who may have a similar goal.
Do shared values and similarities make us weaker partners? Do we need to diversify more? This was unexpected.This lead to perhaps one of the most unusual phrases of the session; serial polygamy. Essentially, the idea is that organisations become more flexible in their approach to partnerships, seeking new and different partners as needs grow and change. I have to say, I really like this. To be serial polygamists, it would need a level of skill, agreed values and the ability to be highly skilled reflective practitioners.
Serial polygamy; is it the future?! An exciting thought.
The Cafe conversations and the plenary sessions were really stimulating and provided the perfect environment to co-create the ideas and themes for the framework for the Good Partners Charter. Out of each of the four themes came three to four guiding principles, contributing to the Charter. My job now is to present those guiding principles into a working document; something that could be used as a guide to future practice.
Towards the end, after sharing the two reasons why we should ‘do’ partnership, Victor said the most important thing, which is that we are ‘doing it for the people who aren’t in the room’,the beneficiaries. It is really crucial that we don’t lose sight of this. I feel passionately about this topic and this project; I believe that being good at this stuff potentially holds the key to better outcomes for our communities we live in and are part of.
I hope you have enjoyed the blog series. I’d like to thank everyone who has been a part of the project, the round-table discussions and the Cafe on Partnerships. Watch this space for the findings and, of course, the Good Partners Charter!
La Toyah McAllister-Jones (pictured at the top) is a Clore Social Fellow. She has posted this series of blogs on her research on collaboration and partnerships over six weeks. To find out more about La Toyah please click here. View the conversation on Twitter with #goodpartners.