Wherever you go, the concept of partnership working evokes strong reactions. On the one hand, it is constantly exhorted by government and seemingly central to most recent heath and social care policy. Ever since the election of New Labour in 1997, we have witnessed a growing number of initiatives and legal frameworks designed to make real the mantra of joined-up solutions to joined-up problems. However, more recent years have seen something of a backlash against the notion of partnership working, with managers and front-line practitioners starting to wonder whether partnerships deliver anything above and beyond what single agencies could achieve. Given the significant time and effort that partnership working takes, is partnership really worth the effort?
Following high-profile partnership breakdowns in areas previously known for their inter-agency working, it is easy to become cynical. Thus, for one commentator, partnership working represents nothing more than “putting mutual loathing aside in order to get your hands on the money” while, for others, partnership working involves “the undefinable in pursuit of the unachievable”.(1) And yet, there is something about the concept of partnership working that continues to appeal. A bit like concepts of “community” in the early 1990s or “empowerment” and “involvement” in the late 1990s, the term risks meaning all things to all people, but nevertheless tries to express something fundamental. Like those concepts, it is hard to define what we mean by partnership, but we’d probably know it if we saw it in practice.
It is against this background that Community Care’s Excellence Network is so important. Although supporters of the concept of evidence-based practice often look towards formal research to tell them what works, the truth is that front-line services are much more joined-up than the academics and universities doing the evaluations. As a result, front-line practice is usually far ahead of the evidence base and is frequently frustrated when the researchers say that there isn’t enough evidence. Instead of traditional notions of evidence-based practice, therefore, what we need is a greater focus on practice-based evidence – learning what works by testing new ways of working in practice and reflecting on the results.
As entrants in the partnership working/multi-disciplinary category demonstrate, good practice in partnership settings involves being clear about desired outcomes and about why a partnership is the best way of achieving these. Without this shared vision, there is a danger that the resulting partnership will not be fit for purpose. Although partnerships are thought to be able to benefit organisations and staff, starting with the lives and aspirations of people who use services seems to be particularly important in keeping it real.
It is hard to argue with the authentic voices of people with real experiences of the system. This can also help ensure that the vision actually means something to front-line staff – that it is embedded in everyday practice rather than just something written in a strategy document. Ultimately, strategy is what you do, not what you write, and it is only from real-life good practice examples that we can see the potential power of partnership working to make a difference.
For all that we are now more healthily sceptical about the notion of partnership working, examples from the Excellence Network are an important reminder that genuine joint work still has the potential to make us greater than the sum of our parts.
Jon Glasby, professor of health and social care director, Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham. Jon Glasby is co-editor, with Helen Dickinson, of a series of five books on inter-agency working being launched in association with Community Care. For further information see www.policypress.org.uk
(1) Powell, M and Dowling, B (2006), “New Labour’s partnerships: comparing conceptual models with existing forms,” Social Policy and Society, 5(2), 305-314
This article appeared in the 10 April issue under the headline “Take your partners”