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What a difference ten years makes: partnership, policy, and practice

This blog is written by Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis, Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership in the Faculty of Business and Law at The Open University.

It is just 10 years since I arrived at The Open University campus and began to research the topic of partnership working from the perspective of UK voluntary organisations. At that point, I had little sense of the changes ahead in partnership policy and practice.  Nor did I foresee the imminent turn-around in public sector resources that would have such an impact on voluntary and public sector collaborative partnerships.  I had previously spent over 20 years in practice, working in voluntary and public sectors – in project and organisational development, and then in strategy posts.  Partnership working was at the very centre of every one of those roles – partnership between voluntary organisations and between voluntary organisations and public agencies.  During the so-called ‘golden era’ of partnership (under the Blairite government), I worked in early years and family support services, developing new projects, spotting opportunities for collaboration, commissioning and being commissioned, and, of course, continually accounting to government departments.  These were times of growth for public and voluntary sectors – exciting and challenging, but also of big questions.  For me, one of those questions was, ‘why does partnership between public and voluntary sectors work so well in some situations and not in others?’

Three points for Reflection

I’m still struggling with that question.  But I’ve recently taken time to re-connect with some of the contacts from my early research, and am reflecting on the following:

First, in the last ten years, large numbers of committed and experienced people have moved on, people who were connectors in ongoing collaboration between voluntary and public sectors.  My original PhD research suggests that partnership, formal and informal, is hugely dependent on relationships between key individuals (Jacklin-Jarvis, 2014).  More recently, the CVSL team participated in research for the Lloyds Bank Foundation https://www.lloydsbankfoundation.org.uk/ourimpact/news/2018/06/18/value-of-small/

(Dayson et al, 2018) that shows how longstanding, collaborative networks of small organisations make a difference in local communities.  So, partnership working may look different in (policy and geographical) areas where there is more or less turnover of personnel and job roles. 

Second, in 2019 there’s less ‘policy for partnership’ in some policy fields than there was ten years ago, but more in others.  In my own field, children’s services, prescriptive policy guidance has increasingly been replaced by local determination of partnership arrangements.  At the same time, my colleague, Karen Potter, points out that in the environmental field policy-led partnerships have increased, with key roles for voluntary organisations (Jacklin-Jarvis and Potter, 2018).  For example, River Trusts and other environmental VOs have taken on leadership of partnerships focused on improving the wellbeing of river catchments in England and Wales  (see https://catchmentbasedapproach.org/).  However, there are very few opportunities to transfer learning from one field to another.  So there’s a danger that there is limited progression in understanding whether and if so how partnership moves society forwards in tackling some of its most complex policy issues. Karen has also highlighted that the groups’ access to very limited funding (for a previous state responsibility) is sporadic, under heavy competition and insecure.  This impacts on their ability to sustain the partnership and the expectations placed on the collaborative effort to help solve important watershed problems (Potter and Jacklin-Jarvis, 2018; Potter, in press).

Third, in spite of policy and personnel changes, in some localities partnership bodies and collaborative cross-sector projects have survived, adapted, and are tackling important work in challenging times. For example, collaborative Children’s Trust Boards, an initiative of the New Labour government, were removed from government policy back in 2010.  In some localities they have disappeared; in others they have taken on a new localised identity; and in others they continue to meet – long after the policy change.  My earlier research suggests that one reason for this is that partnership practices and processes become embedded in a locality, passed on from one person to another and adapting to policy change (Jacklin-Jarvis, 2014).  It seems that a practice of collaboration develops that in turn creates an environment for ongoing partnership working - a culture that is nurtured relationally, embeds collaborative process, and adapts to national policy, with a shared understanding and commitment to what works locally.  My recent research suggests that, somewhat paradoxically, the fact that there are very limited public resources to facilitate partnership working sometimes frees people to collaborate. Recent collaborative working around food poverty just one example.  In one town, a local church was leading a community partnership to deliver free healthy meals during school holidays – with limited support from public agencies.  Freedom from contractual constraints gave space for innovative and agile action.

A fragmented environment

However, at this ten year point, the dominant characterisation of the environment for partnership working is fragmentation – a confusing stop/start of collaborative practice; a continual reinvention of the partnership wheel with little learning from the past; and an absence of detailed, engaged and resourced policy to enable collaboration.  Austerity has broken down partnership structures, reducing opportunities for the development of collaborative relationships, shared understanding, and joint action.

Interviewees told me stories of large policy-driven collaborative projects that have stalled and stuttered over years – where they still wait to see if there are any significant outcomes.  Others told me that continual public sector churn means that they struggle to access basic information, and don’t know who to talk to in order to progress potential projects.  More significantly, in children’s services, the field for my original research, the system itself has become fragmented.  There are multiple service providers, with little clarity as to how they join up, or how they account to democratic process.  As an example, one interviewee reminded me that the duty to educate children is placed on local authorities, but increasingly children are educated in academies run by organisations that have no such duty, and limited accountability to local authorities.  Local authority children’s plans, I was told, ‘are just cut and paste’.

Looking back and looking forward

On reflection, my attempt to look across the ten year period is sending me back further in time, 30 years and more to the beginning of my career, to ask whether we have moved forwards at all in the policy-driven endeavour to join up service provision and offer coherent, shared ways forward on important societal issues.  The answer is surely yes and no.  Some issues like safeguarding for children have moved forward hugely as areas of shared concern and co-ordinated action – yet we still hear of the tragic consequence of failures to collaborate.  In other fields, there is little evidence that collaborative partnership has produced the kind of societal impact that policy so often suggests it might. 

So, ten years on, I’m still researching partnership between public and voluntary sectors, and asking exactly how and in what circumstances such partnership working makes a difference.  Current projects include, exploring how best to evaluate collaborative partnerships, and writing about leadership in the complex, messy space of collaboration, as experienced by voluntary sector actors.

References

Dayson, C. et al (2018) The value of small, London, Lloyds Bank Foundation.

Jacklin-Jarvis, Carol (2014). Collaboration for children: leadership in a complex space. A voluntary sector perspective. PhD thesis The Open University.

Jacklin-Jarvis, Carol and Potter, Karen (2018). A tale of two states? A comparative study of cross-sector collaboration in children’s services and flood risk management. Voluntary Sector Review, 9(1) pp. 89–97.

Potter, K. (In Press), Cementing ‘Stakeholder Collaboration’ into Flood Risk Management, in Eslamian, S. (Ed) 2020 Flood Handbook (Vol. 3), Taylor and Francis

Potter, K. and Jacklin-Jarvis, C. (2018) ‘Brokering relationships with the state: what new understandings can ‘environmental catchment VOs’ filter from the social welfare domain?’ Presented at The Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference NCVO, London, September 2018.

 

2nd October 2019

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