16 December 2015

Creating effective partnerships to deliver public services

Partnership working is central to the public services reform agenda across the UK and beyond, yet it can be difficult to create and sustain effective partnerships. What Works Scotland Community Planning Partnerships partners identified partnership working as a key issue at the heart of public service reform.
What Works Scotland’s Evidence Bank has produced a review of research and other evidence about partnership working in response to this need to inform the development of practice in this area. It highlights findings and high-level messages to help thinking and prompt discussion about how to improve partnerships. A range of resources have also been created to support those involved in public service delivery to reflect on and use the evidence. Karen Seditas shares some of the key findings of the review and implications for policy and practice.

The public sector reform agenda is littered with multi-agency partnerships, for example community planning, neighbourhood planning, children’s services and health and social care integration. Across the UK partnerships are often formally mandated by policy. Partnership is seen as necessary to address complex issues, like health inequality, local regeneration, increasing employability or decreasing pressure on hospital beds.

From our review of research and other evidence, we know that partnership working in UK public services is a complex process shaped by structural, cultural and social factors. Developing and sustaining effective partnership working is challenging in this context.

There is very little evidence linking partnership working in the UK public services to improved outcomes. This is, in part, because of the methodological challenges associated with conducting robust evaluation work within such complex systems.

The research evidence highlights a range of features of effective partnership working, such being clear about partnership aims, objectives, roles and responsibilities and being flexible and responsive in the way that they operate. How these features contribute to partnership effectiveness are shaped by a number of factors, including the motivation for any partnership and the agencies and sectors involved.

Successful partnership working can be considered in relation to inputs, activities and different levels of outcomes to highlight the features that need to be in place at different points in the journey for effective partnership working. What Works Scotland has produced resources  as a way to reflect on these features and how they can be improved.

There are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions to improve partnership working. Organisations and individuals need to engage with the complex context in which they work to address structural, cultural and social factors influencing effectiveness.

Key considerations for improving partnership effectiveness
The review highlighted some key messages for ensuring partnership effectiveness:
  • Be sure that partnership is the right approach to address the issue.
  • Be clear about aims, objectives, roles and responsibilities and ensure understanding is shared by all partners.
  • Establish a dedicated management structure for the work of the partnership and ensure strong, reflective and responsive leadership.
  • Ensure performance management systems are meaningful and tailored to the work of the partnership and information is shared with and of value to all partners.
  • Support staff to develop skills, confidence, trust and relationships required for effective partnership working.
  • Involve all partners in decision making and maintain strong links between the operational and strategic functions of the partnership.
  • Be mindful of the impact that power relations have on partnership working, work to maintain equal and transparent relationships between partners.
  • Engage with the complexity of partnership work – developing in-depth understandings to find tailored solutions to local partnership issues.

The evidence review and accompanying briefing were written by Dr Ailsa Cook, Director of Outcome Focus, and produced by What Work’s Scotland’s Evidence Bank. The Evidence Bank provides appraised, accessible and action-oriented evidence reviews and other resources for those involved in public service delivery including Community Planning Partnerships, policy-makers, local authorities and third sector organisations. The Evidence Bank builds on builds on methods developed by CRFR (Centre for Research on Families and Relationships) to address well-documented issues around using evidence including accessibility, relevance, and timeliness.

The full evidence review contains further findings, signposting, talking points, references, and details of how the research was carried out.

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