Collaboration: From emerging science to evidence base?

For a government department working to solve stubborn social problems, a company tackling sustainability, or a voluntary organisation looking to partner at a local level, collaboration promises a way forward. It offers the possibility of increased learning and knowledge sharing, reduced costs, and the development of more innovative products. Done well, it can drive systemic change where it is needed and maximise collective impact.

And yet, the wish for collaboration translates unevenly into practice. Many attempts to embed collaborative working end in failure. Even when structures and governance are aligned, cultural and emotional barriers remain. Great collaboration for better outcomes feels like the exception; and the downsides of getting it wrong are just as potent as the payoff for making it work.

A growing body of research seeks to understand the issues that connect collaboration with social impact, to offer advice on spotting the right opportunities, and to identify the critical factors for success. This is much needed, particularly in the context of ongoing fiscal austerity, changes to the way government contracts are structured and designed, and a sense that social problems are becoming increasingly complex in nature.

Our understanding of “what works” remains a work in progress. Yet in order to take the art and science of collaboration as seriously as it needs to be, we need a more systematic way of building, understanding and deploying the evidence base.

This is an argument we tested during a series of roundtables on emerging trends in public service collaboration in 2014. Bringing together thinkers, practitioners and evaluators, we asked how to achieve better collaborative outcomes for communities and their citizens across three critical areas of public policy.

Children and Young people

We were joined by an expert group, including Sir Tony Hawkhead (Action for Children), Bharat Mehta (Trust for London) and Caroline Boswell (Greater London Authority) to explore ways in which different agencies could work together on prevention, early intervention in early years, and to support the transitions between services that can let down children or young people on the edge of care and at key points in their lives.

Health and Social care

A group that included Stephen Dorrell MP, Professor Carol Propper (Imperial College), Dr Yvonne Doyle (Public Health England) and Lord Victor Adebowale (Turning Point and Collaborate CIC) debated the changes in culture and behaviour needed to turn new legislation and policy ambition in health and social care into better outcomes for citizens in London, Manchester and beyond.

Employment and Skills

Participants heard from Kim Chaplain (Young London Working), John Mayford (Olmec), and Wendy Baverstock (Tomorrow’s People) who explored the challenges and value of collaborating across an immense youth employment market.

These are distinct and highly specialised policy areas, but they threw up broad consensus on the need for better inter-agency and cross-sector working. We found a shared conviction in the need to shift the locus of practice from service to citizens, and a mutual sense that the evidence base and methodologies for collaboration – what works, what doesn’t, how a theory of change or impact can be built – are lacking.

Five themes (or indeed mindsets) emerged from the range of discussions, which together may form the basis for an agenda for practitioners in 2015/16. We offer examples of where these can be seen in our own work in our paper Collaboration: From emerging science to evidence base?, and propose the development of a Collaboration Evidence Hub – a virtual platform that offers a systematic way of building and understanding the evidence base.

This blog was written by Stephen Bediako, founder and chief executive of TSIP. It was published on the TSIP website. Click here to access the original blog. You can tweet Stephen at @stephentsip.

If you are interested in this work, please contact Adelaide Adade at

Image courtesy of the original blog.

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