New perspectives on partnership


International Journal of Public Sector Management

ISSN: 0951-3558

Article publication date: 1 April 2006



Laffin, M. and Liddle, J. (2006), "New perspectives on partnership", International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 19 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

New perspectives on partnership

New perspectives on partnership

In the UK “partnership” has emerged as a central theme in New Labour policy. The present government has seen the formation of partnerships as fundamental to its public sector reform programme across wide areas of public policy – especially in the management of regeneration projects, the improvement of coordination across health and other agencies, and the finance and management of large public sector projects. Yet major uncertainties persist over the definition of “partnership” and the evaluation of partnership initiatives among both policy makers and researchers. Thus the idea of a Workshop on partnership arose as a contribution to this pressing need to evaluate the diverse meanings and use of this idea and, not least, to explore some theoretical perspectives on partnership. Thus the aim of the Workshop, held under the auspices of Durham University Centre for Public Policy, was to bring together a diverse group of people who have been working on different types of partnership. The objectives of the Workshop were to:

  • examine our current theoretical understandings of partnership and explore potentially useful theoretical approaches;

  • review our current knowledge of how partnerships work in practice; and

  • facilitate some learning across different policy contexts.

This special edition brings together some of the contributions and papers delivered at the Workshop.

The first two contributions to the Workshop were mainly theoretical. They proposed some key ideas and insights into how partnership and interagency collaboration could be understood. Eugene Bardach, from the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, opened the Workshop. In his contribution, which is not included in this collection, he colourfully described “interagency collaboration” as “an unnatural act among non-consenting adults”, referring to the persistence of obstacles to collaboration. In his view partnerships and collaboration were an increasingly inescapable feature of public management given the realities of rapid change within the public sector. Structural changes, too, typically take too long and can often prove counterproductive. Accordingly, he introduced the notion of building “interagency collaborative capacity” (ICC) into and between public sector organizations (see Bardach, 1998 for more details). ICC refers to the potential organizations have to work together, a potential created by the availability of resources (especially money, “nothing motivates like money”), suitable governance arrangements, a shared culture and a means of communication based on trust. The other vital aspect of ICC is the skills brought to the partnership by the participants. Thus he stressed how building ICC required painstaking craftsmanship, time, steady personnel, leadership and significant political latitude for participants.

In the other main conceptual contribution to the Workshop, John Friend reminded the Workshop participants of the long tradition of research on partnership and collaboration developed in the Tavistock Institute dating back to the 1960s (see Friend and Hickling, 2004; Friend et al., 1974). Again, like Bardach, he reminded us of the challenges facing public managers in a world where relationships have grown in complexity and uncertainty. In this context, he identified his work as being within the tradition of development decision theory rather than within that of systems thinking which, he argued, has dominated much of planning and management. His distinctive Tavistock approach, in the tradition of operational research, offers ways of representing these relationships through diagrammatic representations. These representations offer public managers, as well as researchers, valuable ways of sorting out and understanding these complex relationships. Like Bardach, Friend stressed the importance of managers’ skill development rather than structural change. He referred to the nexus of skills required, summed up in his word reticulist (from the Latin for net), which refers to a combination of cognitive skills. Firstly, the skills involved in grasping the connections underlying decision problems, especially the sources of uncertainty underlying those problems. Secondly, the skills and capacity required to understand and work within the relationships both fixed by the formal structures of accountability and by the realities of inter-personal relationships. He then highlighted the ethical issues involved in working across agency boundaries. He noted, particular, how paradoxically the development of trust across agencies often depends on a willingness by participants to “trade indiscretions” across organisational boundaries. It is tensions, like this, which pose the greatest challenges to managers, especially to those who still expect clear and undisputed lines of accountability.

Diamond, then, gave us an account of how “partnership” has become pervasive in UK government circles, although mostly applied to the local and regional levels of government rather than to the workings of central government. The idea of partnership has become so pervasive and inclusive as to become almost meaningless. It has become the policy response to a wide range of social and political ills such as the perceived decline in local democracy, the resolution of “wicked problems” arising from failed coordination across agencies, and the reduction of inefficiencies in service delivery. Not least, Diamond noted how the assumptions of easy consensus implied by partnership often obscure the realities of underlying power relations. It was these power relations which really determine how partnerships work and mean, in practice, too often “partnerships” are partnerships in name only. Managers in government agencies, too, found themselves juggling increasingly complex patterns of often competing accountabilities. Consequently, partnership, according to Diamond, as a long-term, sustainable strategy will fail as the present UK government has imposed it too indiscriminately across the public sector. Used too indiscriminately partnerships can obscure both the lines of accountability and the accurate diagnosis of too many, diverse problems. For Diamond the language of partnership needs to become more specific and he offers some specific pathways towards more effective partnership working.

The remaining papers then focussed on particular policy sectors and territorial levels. McMurray reinforced Diamond’s perspective, albeit by taking an even more pessimistic view of the future of partnership. For him the real obstacles were underlying, structural barriers to partnership, in his case those that exist in the health-social care divide in England, which still rendered joint working problematic. In his view these barriers were largely a matter of the professionals locked into their own problem definitions and protecting their own turf. Such are these barriers that, despite at least two decades of official injunctions to joint working, collaborative practices remain elusive. McMurray’s diagnosis involves the identification of two key tensions – between the acute bio-medical model focussed on disease and the holistic conception of health as well-being, and between quasi-markets and joint working. Despite the Westminster government’s stress on joint working, its guidance has too often differed. Social care receives the urgent messages to work jointly while those messages to health have tended to reinforce the professional bio-medical model. In addition, the introduction of quasi-markets, based on a model of institutional self-interest, has further reinforced the inward focus of the large health providing organisations. It has encouraged “the self-interested seizure of resources” by health service organisations that face powerful incentives to externalise their costs onto the social care sector rather than to collaborate with this sector.

The next two papers considered developments in partnership in the light of British devolution, not least as policy differences have begun to emerge between England and Scotland, and England and Wales. Carley considered the prospects for community planning and partnerships in Scotland following the introduction of community planning in 2003. He agreed with Diamond that the evidence about partnership effectiveness across Britain is mixed and quotes the Audit Commission approvingly that they are “one of the toughest challenges facing public sector managers”. He was worried, too, by the spread of “partnership fatigue” as people sat through endless meetings and the mismatch between the necessarily informal, partnership arrangements and the formal decision-making machinery of local government. For him the way forward lay in tackling certain key challenges. The spatial levels of decision making had to be linked up so that initiatives at the neighbourhood and local authority level are reinforced by regional and national policy. There was a need as well to integrate short-term policy initiatives into long-term governance processes to improve policy and service delivery through learning-by-doing in local governance. Not least, better and more innovative ways of ensuring citizen participation were required if the benefits of citizen feedback on service delivery were to be harvested and local democratic processes revitalised. Finally, the leadership of major public sector institutions themselves has to change to value partnership working and citizen participation, and they must communicate these values to their staff.

Entwistle stressed the contrasts between England and Wales. Wales has necessarily to follow England’s lead as it is locked into the legal framework of the Westminster Parliament. Nonetheless, some differences have emerged. In Wales partnerships are as much about policy formation as they are about policy implementation whereas in England, as Diamond pointed out, partnerships are almost exclusively about service delivery. The Welsh Assembly Government has given a strong lead on involving local government, business and the voluntary sector in policy formation and implementation at both the Wales level and the local levels. But, of course, life is simpler in Wales. Both the smaller scale of that nation and the existence of unitary authorities, rather than the two-tier system found in most of England, significantly simplify the challenges involved in partnership. Nonetheless, in the words of one official, in Wales, “we are at the start of a very long road”.

By way of conclusion, some key issues and themes stand out from these papers both for future research and consideration by policy makers. Firstly, “partnership” has become over-used and under-specified as a word and a policy response. Too often central policy makers confuse what are essentially statements of good intent with real, implementable policy. Those closer to the realities of service delivery are then left to struggle within a policy miasma which central policy makers appear to have created. Secondly, central policy makers are themselves caught in a paradox. They recognise the potential and necessity of partnership and so seek to impose it, yet, as the authors here all make clear, the most effective partnerships rest on conditions of trust and understanding which evolve and cannot be legislated. Thirdly, the rhetoric of partnership assumes consensus and elides power relationships. Where disagreements have deep roots and where powerful interests underlay barriers to joint working, partnership is unlikely to work and attempts to impose it will generate resistance and cynicism. Fourthly, our contributors were still largely agreed that collaborative approaches in public policy retained considerable importance, not least as a counterbalance to demands for unnecessary structural change. Moreover, collaborative forms of working will be of increasing importance in the future. Thus the issue of what skills are required and how those skills can be best developed will continue to be a major area of debate within the public services.

AcknowledgementsThe Guest Editors would like to acknowledge the contribution of the other participants to the Workshop.

Martin Laffin and Joyce LiddleDurham Business School, Durham, UK


Bardach, E. (1998), Getting Agencies to Work Together: The Practice and Theory of Managerial Craftsmanship, Brookings, Washington, DC

Friend, J.K. and Hickling, A. (2004), Planning under Pressure: The Strategic Choice Approach, Butterworth-Heinemann, London

Friend, J.K., Power, J.M. and Yewlett, C.J.L. (1974), Public Planning: The Intercorporate Dimension, Tavistock, London

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