Advice ShopPartnership is a familiar mantra to social workers,
but to make it more than just rhetoric the participants must know
how to build them. Suzy Braye outlines how you can develop better
Partnership is a cherished notion in professional vocabulary.
Easy to say, it is difficult to do. Can it really be achieved?
Social work's commitment to partnership has sometimes received a
bad press. The Social Services Inspectorate has held partnership
responsible for inappropriate attempts to return children to their
birth families and for over-optimistic assessments of parents'
abilities. While practitioners have been praised for doing it, they
have been criticised for seeing partnership as an end rather than a
The scepticism is hardly surprising when we look at the barriers
to partnership. Organisational and professional politics both play
a part. The performance efficiency targets dominating agencies can
detract from opportunities to develop partnership relationships.
These take time and energy which practitioners have very little
Agencies have the power to define the problem and its solution,
and this often conflicts with their professional goals of improving
service users' control over their lives. Yet professionals too can
guard their status and be fearful of sharing power, or doubt
service users' ability to share decision-making.
Practice dilemmas also complicate the issue. How do we work in
partnership with young people and parents, with disabled people and
carers, when they have conflicting interests? Sadly, practitioners
also talk about lack of partnership towards them from their
The law has an important part to play in promoting partnership
and practitioners can draw upon it.
n Be familiar with the legal mandates for partnership. These are
often found in policy and practice guidance rather than acts of
parliament. The original guidance issued alongside the Children Act
1989 and the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 is peppered with
references to the principles and practice of partnership. More
recently the new assessment framework for children in need
emphasises co-operative working relationships, based on respect,
information, openness and honesty.
· Recognise that partnership does not happen solely through
an act of will, or a deeply held conviction that it is the right
thing to do. It is founded upon building blocks. When practitioners
express disappointment at service users' apparent unwillingness to
work in partnership, it is sometimes because they are trying to
build on shaky foundations. The capacity for partnership on both
sides must be developed through information sharing, consultation,
representation in decision-making and advocacy. These all
contribute to full partnership.
· Be aware that these building blocks for partnership have
strong legal backing too. Children's wishes and feelings, and those
of their parents or carers, must be taken into account in
decision-making. Users of community care services and their carers
should participate in assessment and care planning and have
opportunities to exercise choice. Access to information is legally
required, both in relation to services and to personal information.
Consultation on service plans is mandatory, as are mechanisms for
representation and redress.
· Draw on case law, which arises from judicial
decision-making in individual circumstances. Case law is helpful if
you are trying to manage the dilemmas of competing priorities, such
as between the views of children and their parents. It helps
determine what level of partnership is appropriate, and with
The legal mandates need not be empty rhetoric. They help
overcome barriers to partnership practice and provide important
reference points for service users and practitioners alike. They
remind us that professionals must keep the offer of partnership on
the table, even when it is not accepted as eagerly as we would
like. Keeping the negotiation open is crucial while we build