Partnership, as understood by the Christie Commission, is both an assemblage and a way of working; both an ongoing arrangement and an evolving set of practices. Partnership has become a key mantra of the Scottish Approach to public service reform.

Two paper cutout people with jigsaw pieces and solving a puzzlePartnership working was celebrated in the Christie report, and turned into a key to unlocking improvement through collaboration between and within the public, third and community sectors. This aspiration has structural and cultural implications. In terms of structures, there has been policy development in contexts such as the integration of health and social care, or the legislation for community planning partnerships in the Community Empowerment Act. However, culture change (mindsets and practices) remains the most challenging dimension of public service reform.

Research insights

Theoretical commitment to the narrative of partnership is widespread in Scotland, but its implementation is patchy both across and within organisations and sectors .  (See Fife Collaborative Action Research Programme: An overview of the process and Community Planning after the Community Empowerment Act: The Second Survey of Community Planning Officials in Scotland).

At its best, partnership entails sharing power. Power to mobilise resources, to set policy agendas, to co-produce services, to develop strategies and to influence decisions. Power-sharing relies heavily on trust and openness: people are more open to collaborate in partnerships if they know what is involved and there is a clear shared purpose. The point of power-sharing is to achieve collaborative advantage, that is, outcomes that cannot be accomplished by any single organisation on its own. This applies to most of the complex or ‘wicked’ problems that public policy seeks to address today. The opposite of collaborative advantage is collaborative inertia, which takes place when partnerships are established but fail to generate collective action and make a difference. A focus on collaboration that does not produce results can be a costly diversion of time and resources that may be better deployed in other initiatives.

There is an expectation that community planning partnerships can provide an effective platform for joint working and decision-making, co-production and local governance. Our research indicates that partnership work across sectoral, organisational and departmental boundaries has been inconsistent across the country. In terms of health and social care integration, the structural and cultural policy changes that are required to enable this policy shift are work in progress. There is a lack of institutional leadership, thus integration is often left to individual innovators or “boundary spanners” and these are acting as key drivers of change. Where change is occurring, this is arguably happening despite the system.

Creating effective partnerships to deliver public services entails:

  1. shared vision and understanding of aims, objectives, roles and responsibilities;
  2. strong, reflective and responsive leadership;
  3. meaningful and tailored performance management systems;
  4. staff development; 5) focus on outcomes;
  5. strong links between operational and strategic functions;
  6. equal and transparent relationships between partners.

Operation Modulus is an exemplar of how to develop effective partnership interventions, consistent with Christie. It is a model of a way of working, not a blueprint, and so needs to be adapted to local contexts. Operation Modulus happened because strategic leaders in Community Planning and Fire and Rescue collaborated to base a Fire and Rescue officer centrally within the community planning partnership. Other strategic leaders can replicate or adapt this model. Operation Modulus was implemented without additional funding by partners, but by partners working in a different and planned way together. It demonstrates how, by taking this approach, public money can be saved while improving outcomes.

Another example of partnership working is the West Dunbartonshire collaborative work on refugee resettlement. It illustrates how effective partnership requires a clear purpose and rationale. The need to resettle the Syrian families quickly led to a sense of urgency to act and this galvanised cross-agency collaboration between services at a local level. The early convening of a multi-agency group; the use of evidence to identify suitable locations; and early engagement with established communities, along with the creation of a Resettlement Team, all contributed to the success of this programme.

Implications for policy and practice

  • To be more effective, partnerships must work on three key ingredients of effective collaboration: inclusion, interdependence and deliberative quality. Firstly, inclusion means providing opportunities for meaningful collaboration between all the affected stakeholders. It is crucial to mobilise all the relevant interests, experiences and types of expertise in order to improve outcomes. Secondly, interdependence refers to the incentives for collaboration: potential partners will be more likely to cooperate if they think that they cannot accomplish their objectives alone. Good partnership work entails discovering areas of interdependence: those complex issues that require joining forces. Finally, deliberative quality is an often-overlooked ingredient in effective partnership. Deliberation entails critical engagement with a range of perspectives, arguments and evidence, working through differences and disagreements, and generating well-informed decisions. Sustained deliberation supports partnership development and building shared understanding among diverse groups of partners.
  • Everyday ‘mundane’ practices (e.g. meeting rituals) are a key foundation for large-scale change. More attention needs to be paid to the challenges of collaborative group-working: the need for a listening culture of ‘sharing airtime’; the value of peer support for people leading groups; and, the potential use of co-working and independent facilitation. Partnerships that work through deliberation, learn from examples of success and ‘failure’ and from other evidence, and test out actions, provide strong foundations to support culture change in public services.
  • Improving partnership working requires fostering a culture of collaboration instead of competition, as well as ongoing learning through sharing and discussing evidence, and effective communication. The examples of Operation Modulus and refugee resettlement illustrate how outcomes can be achieved when collaboration overcomes ‘silo thinking’ and traditional ‘problem ownership’. These were cases where partners were not distracted by the question ‘whose problem/budget is this?’ and instead focussed on ‘what needs to be done and how do we do it?’
  • The role of the private sector in collaborative settings like community planning partnerships needs to be better articulated. Getting the private sector engaged with partnerships remains a challenge. Key to the success of public service reform initiatives is the ability of partners to be able generate meaningful opportunities for beneficiary groups. A partner that can provide opportunities for employment in a supportive environment is a strong asset in public service reform.
  • There needs to be a broader and clearer understanding of the outcomes from partnership work. For example, the added value of community planning partnerships needs to be better communicated across authorities and communities, and at national level. This should entail reporting more systematically the collaborative advantages gained through partnership work, as well as specific outcomes for a range of communities of place, practice and interest.

Cover of the report Key Messages About Public Service Reform in Scotland with What Works Scotland logo

What Works Scotland: Key messages about Public Service Reform in Scotland

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