Sunday, 15 April 2012

38. Agile Partnerships

I’m arguing in this post that we should apply the same flexibility to partnerships that we are beginning to see applied more and more to public sector working practices.  Before I get onto that, let me say a little a bit about current attitudes to partnerships.

The Partnership Problem

Partnerships, especially the formal ones have a pretty bad press.  The dominant narrative is, in a nutshell, that there are too many of them.  This can be broken down into a number of specific criticisms:
  • Many partnerships meet unnecessarily including those that have continued beyond their sell by date
  • Too much precious resource is used supporting them
  • Many lack clear focus or purpose
  • The same people meet again and again in different partnerships
  • They lead to unnecessary complexity
  • Accountability is unclear – they can create a ‘democratic deficit’
This type of critique (although I have yet to see it properly evidenced – correct me if I am wrong) has led to governments pursuing partnership rationalisation.  This was one of the aims of Local Strategic Partnerships in England and now informs the thinking of the Welsh Government (see this recent consultation).   The argument that follows is that we need to reduce the number of partnerships, simplify structures and create hierarchies so that accountabilities can be strengthened.

The Joy of Partnerships

I want to argue from a different perspective.  I think partnerships are a good thing.  They involve people coming together around a single issue or shared concern such as community safety, health inequality or literacy.  In fact, in many ways, partnerships make much more sense to me than organisations such as local authorities or health boards.

I remember someone from social services once telling me that partnership meetings were usually productive and often motivating; a good use of time.  It was the internal meetings, of which there were many more, that she wished didn’t keep taking her away from her ‘real’ work.

So, for me the ‘partnership problem’ is that we apply organisational thinking (and quite old organisational thinking at that) to something that needs to be fluid and flexible.  Remember, partnerships are not usually organisations in the sense that they formally control resources or people.  And yet we can’t help formalising them, agreeing terms of reference, producing minutes and establishing reporting mechanisms.  I’m not sure that all this is necessary.

Agile Partnerships

I’m really interested in the current ideas around agile working and I think they should be applied to partnerships.  Agile working includes things like home working and flexible working but, at heart, is about being more concerned with the outcome than the process.  Here is one definition from Paul Allsopp:

Agile working is about bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).

An agile approach to partnerships would have the following features:
  1. Spontaneity - partnerships form wherever and whenever they are needed; there should be no limit on the number.  This should also apply to the ending of partnerships.  People must feel free to walk away when partnerships are not longer working / necessary.  Ironically, more rigidly organised partnerships are harder to end. 
  2. Informality Rules – regular reporting, minute taking and partnership agreements should be avoided.  If something needs to be noted or shared then just do it.  Partnerships don’t have to be bureaucratic.
  3. Voluntary Participation – it seems to me that the success of partnerships depends on the passion and purpose of the participants rather than the rules we establish to make them work.   If people have to be ‘signed up’ before they can participate then, in my book, it’s not a partnership.
  4. One Purpose – However you want to define them, partnerships work best when they concentrate on a single outcome such as reducing domestic violence or the number of young people outside of education, employment and training.  ‘Sector’ partnerships, such as for health and wellbeing or children and young people, risk being overly complex and can struggle to prioritise.
  5. Personal Accountability - for me the answer to the problem of accountability in partnerships can be solved by locating accountability purely with the individuals involved.  It is impossible to ignore the fact that people already bring their organisational accountabilities with them but this can be a virtue rather than a problem when people are able to find partners with shared aims. 
Ultimately, I think, the secret is for organisations to invest their trust in the people that work for them and to let partnerships become a natural way of pooling resources; part of the natural ebb and flow of public professional life.  These agile partnerships are surely better than the pseudo-organisations that many partnerships have become; generating the mistrust of professionals and elected representatives alike.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/anat_flickr/4377123623/

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