Partnership, "Making the Connections" and Joined Up Governance - Dealing with the Downside
Partnership is the current panacea; the cure for all our ills. But is it delivering better services? Who knows? Who's asking? It is certainly costing a great deal. Senior and middle managers and professionals spend a lot of their time meeting each other "in partnership". Is that the best use of their time? Those I speak to don't usually think so but don't believe they have too much choice about it. I think they do.
Most of the rhetoric heard from Ministers and senior officials in Cardiff Bay and in Whitehall talks of "partnership" as the ultimate solution. Local government, the NHS and the Police gain their brownie points by showing they are "working hard together" in many meetings often at very senior level. Little doubt that the genesis of this is a long series of reports on service failures in child protection, mental health, services for frail elderly people among others describing poor communication between and among the services. The obvious answer is to improve communication and the obvious way to do that is through partnerships of mutual understanding.
The answer may be obvious but it seems to be wrong. In conversation after conversation with service deliverers in recent months they have told me of the imperative to attend inter-agency and public/community/voluntary meetings of dubious value on a whole range of subjects. All this activity represents enormous opportunity cost in lost management time not devoted to service improvement. Senior and middle managers seem to spend an inordinate amount of their time moving from one meeting to another discussing "high level" purposes and solutions to problems. Sometimes, to be blunt, they seem to be discussing very little except the sustainment of the process itself.
This constant round of meetings ticks all the right boxes; the agencies are doing all that is asked of them. But is the consumer/client/patient getting a better service as a result? Is the taxpayer getting a better return for their money? I don't know because that is not something most partnerships focus on - or at least report on. They can tell you how often they meet and what they decide but not, in my experience, with what result.
Purpose not Process
I'm not suggesting partnership is always the wrong approach. In fact I'm convinced it is necessary to pursue some purposes effectively. And a great deal front line work depends for its quality on good inter-professional collaboration. But too many partnerships exist for their own sake, with little reference to the impact they are having on the services but self-generating a great deal of activity. They are expensive processes which, at best, drain the real business of resources.
Many public services are improving I think, though that is not the public perception. But I have yet to see any clear evidence of improvement flowing from effective partnership. I'm sure some has but most partnerships are just not set up to demonstrate those objectives. On the other hand the process always has very high costs. Either those costs add value directly to the services the agencies commission or they amount to waste - expenditure which adds nothing of value, often at the expense of other activity which may.
Testing the Partnership
Partnerships should always be tested against purposes and results.
Does this ring bells? Give me a call if you could use help with your own analysis.
Ref. Partnerships in Social Care, Keith Fletcher, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.Keith Fletcher, 1st September 2008