Let’s Dance

High quality partnerships have helped to spark real improvements in social care.  Partnerships can improve service co-ordination, bring about joint procurement, share knowledge and expertise, provide a greater focus on service users’ needs and cut costs through shared services. Pooled budgets in particular promote greater effectiveness in partnerships, helping to prevent them being mere talking shops.

Social care is where integration has proceeded furthest in local public services. The Children Act 2004 and the creation of children’s trusts have taken the concept of partnerships to new levels, creating better environments for cross-sectoral working. 

But weak partnerships confuse both service users and partner bodies. They can leave vulnerable people and the partner bodies confused about who provides what and who to complain to when things go wrong. This has left service users and professionals frustrated and disappointed. It is time to expect more partnerships to reach the standards of the best – while public bodies should consider whether those weak partnerships are the right approach to their particular cross-cutting challenges.

There has been a big increase in the number of partnerships in recent years. Today, there are about 5,500 partnerships in the UK, responsible for œ4bn of public expenditure. But too often public bodies have entered into partnerships underestimating the extent of the challenges they pose. Through our review of partnerships,1 the Audit Commission wants to provoke a more constructively critical approach by public bodies to their participation in partnerships.

Not surprisingly, clear agreements between partners can help partnerships to operate more effectively and with greater accountability. Auditors have found that a third of public bodies experience problems in partnerships. Organisations without comprehensive partnership agreements are the most likely to hit problems – primary care trusts are twice as likely to have difficulties without these agreements and acute trusts three times more likely. Worryingly, most public bodies do not have agreements in place for at least some of their partnerships.

Many public bodies are unsure how many partnerships they participate in. Often their level of involvement and the extent of their commitment is unclear. It can be difficult to understand who in the partnership takes decisions, how these decisions can be challenged and where decisions are reported. Weak governance not only undermines accountability, it also places partner bodies at risk of being held responsible for service failure, of damage to their reputations and possibly of large financial liabilities.

All partnerships and their partner bodies should ask themselves two questions: “Who is in charge of the partnership?” and “How does this partnership add value?”. The answers should help them to develop a basis for strong corporate governance, based on clear leadership, a culture of scrutiny and challenge, a strong and open flow of information and a focus on users’ views and experiences.

Effective corporate governance requires good systems of performance management, financial management and risk management. Progress is being made with instilling the best principles of performance management in partnerships: for example, through joint performance targets and shared ICT systems. The Audit Commission’s local area profiles and quality of life indicators will help further, as will greater use by the public sector of local area agreements. 

Financial management works better in ‘vertically-funded’ partnerships (such as SureStart), where there is close scrutiny by funders, than in partnerships with multiple funding sources. Funders should ensure that they properly monitor and scrutinise partnerships’ activities, with effective systems of financial accountability in place – but arrangements should be proportionate to the money and risk involved. Risk management is an area of particular concern and it needs to be recognised that while pooled budgets can produce better outcomes, they expose partnerships and their members to higher risks.  The problems are illustrated by the experience of some Supporting People administering authorities. (see The Challenges, below)

The Audit Commission is also very concerned about accountability in partnerships.  Public bodies should be held to account, they should give an account of what they do, take account of people’s views and have a system for redress. In all these areas, some partnerships are deficient. Partnerships often ignore the need for complaints procedures. 

But more fundamental questions need to be posed by public bodies about their partnerships than merely regarding process. Public bodies must also ask whether a partnership is the correct solution to a particular problem, or whether bilateral arrangements or improved consultation would be more effective. To answer these questions, public bodies need to thoroughly evaluate their involvement in all their partnerships.

Evaluation of the benefit of partnerships needs to begin with a mapping exercise, enabling public bodies to know how many partnerships they are involved in and the resource implications, including staff time for meetings and administration. From this a value for money analysis should be undertaken, assessing the inputs, outputs and outcomes of each partnership. Our report includes a checklist and framework to help partners do just that.

This is not just an issue for local public bodies: central government, too, must be more clear about when it can expect partnerships to deliver the desired results. Government departments collectively need to set out how individual local partnerships relate to each other; and the scope for local discretion over priority setting. Clarifying accountability between partners and partnerships will help to ensure that local collaboration becomes more effective.

There are lessons, too, for the Audit Commission and how we support improvement in partnership working and governance.  Through our report, our local audits and inspections and in other studies, we will build up awareness of best practice and the value and impact of various kinds of partnership. The findings of this work will be shared with others.

It is a cause for congratulation that so much of the public sector has developed collaborative working practices and wholeheartedly entered into partnerships. But it must be right that those partnerships are as effectively governed and managed as are individual public bodies. It is no more than the vulnerable people dependent on services deserve.

The challenges
The Supporting People (SP) programme controls annual expenditure of œ1.72bn. Local administering authorities use joint commissioning bodies, bringing together local authorities, primary care trusts and local probation boards. But some commissioning body members are unclear about their roles and responsibilities and not all health and probation representatives attend regularly. Often the commissioning body does not in practical terms govern the programme and where the role of the accountable officer is also weak, leadership falls to a council’s SP lead officer – a middle management position. 

Reporting arrangements from that officer to the council’s treasurer, other senior managers and members are often weak, or even non-existent. Councils may not recognise either formally or informally that they have any responsibility for the SP governance role. SP lead officers cannot ensure a strategic approach across all partners, or ensure that there is joint planning of SP and complementary budgets from the various partner organisations. Blame for any service failures may be publicly laid at just one of the partner bodies, as may the cost of initiating replacement services. Vulnerable users can lose valuable services, but without knowing who to go to for redress.

James Strachan’s career spans the private, public and voluntary sectors. He is currently chair of the Audit Commission, the public services regulator and watchdog. He is also chair of RNID, and a visiting fellow at LSE. He has been a board member of the National Lottery’s Community Fund; the Disability Rights Commission and Save the Children. He has also been both a trustee and chief executive of RNID.

Training and learning
The authors have provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.


This article argues that while the best partnerships contribute to improvements in social care and other public services, weak partnerships erode public service accountability and expose partners to risks of financial liabilities and damaged reputations. Comprehensive partnership agreements are the basis for high quality management and accountability within partnerships. Public bodies are urged to evaluate their partnership involvement.

(1) Audit Commission, ‘Governing Partnerships – Bridging the Accountability Gap’, 2005.
Available at www.audit-commission.gov.uk. Hard copies are available from Audit Commission Publications, PO Box 99, Wetherby, LS23 7JA, 0800 502030.



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