Features: July 17th, 2009

By John Tizard

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

Joined –up government has become a key feature of the public sector. Moving the focus of public services away from the provider and on to the user has changed the perspective. Not only is the user disinterested in who provides the service, it is critical that the different providers get their act together and combine their resources, working as an integrated team. The author describes how the University of Birmingham is promoting partnership working.

Increasingly the commissioning and delivery of responsive public services and community well-being will be dependent on effective partnerships and collaboration between agencies. It is critical that partnership working is optimized where it adds value; but it has to be effective, transparent and accountable. It must ensure value for money and secure the outcomes desired and required by service users and the wider community. Now is the time to build on best practice and to find innovative means to ensure that partnerships really do add value.

Effective partnering

One of the most used—and often misused—words in contemporary public policy and practice is the word ‘partnership’. There is a tendency to promote the word ‘partnership’ even when no partnership exists or when partnership might actually be the wrong relationship for the objectives and outcomes being sought.

Partnership is a word that can be used solely to provide political cover or as a way of appearing compliant with national policy or guidance. For example contractual arrangements with the business sector are often labelled as ‘partnerships’ for political and public relations reasons when in reality there is no partnership.

Effective partnerships can make a positive contribution to addressing complex issues which require cross-agency solutions; to sharing risks and rewards between agencies and between the public and business sectors; to ensuring that the third (voluntary, community and social enterprise) sector not only has an opportunity to deliver public services but also to add value to civil society.

Partnership is easy as an ambition, but much harder in reality. However, it is inevitable that there will be more and more partnerships and other forms of collaborative working. Public service delivery, public infrastructure, social and economic regeneration and public well-being are increasingly dependent on partnerships and collaboration between public sector agencies and businesses, between different public agencies and between them and the third sector.

The Centre for Public Service Partnerships (CPSP) was established earlier this year at the University of Birmingham to assist politicians, policy-makers and practitioners identify when to partner and when not to; how best to design the right partnership arrangements; how to secure accountability and transparency; and how to measure effectiveness and performance. The Centre is both a research centre, and a policy and practice institute. Its objectives are to:

• Be a leading source of authoritative, evidence-based advice on public service partnerships.
• Undertake and actively disseminate leading academic research on an international basis on public service partnerships.
• Act as a major link between the academic, policy and practitioner communities.
• Offer a forum for dialogue and debate between the sectors on the best ways to deliver effective outcomes through partnership.
• Provide knowledge exchange and policy advice on public service partnering.
• Be objective and independent of all vested interests.

The Centre’s focus is on:

• Public agency to public agency partnering and collaboration—formal and informal.
• Public agency partnerships and collaboration with the third sector— formal and informal—for service delivery and as contributors to civil society.
• Public agency partnerships and collaboration with the business sector including public–private partnerships (PPPs)/Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals, outsourcing partnerships and regeneration partnerships.
• Co-production—partnerships between service users and commissioners and providers.

CPSP’s themes

The Centre will consider the dynamics, behaviours and outcomes of public service partnerships. The Centre’s research, policy and practice themes are performance; governance; capacity; finances and commercial relations; and innovation in respect of public service partnerships. The Centre is committed to:

• Practising the highest academic standards and gaining international academic recognition.
• Outputs that are relevant for national and international policy and practice.
• Challenging orthodoxy in policy, practitioner and academic thinking and practice.
• Identifying future—medium- and long-term—models of public service partnerships and collaboration, and the means of achieving and implementing these.
• Being willing and able to make contemporary interventions.
• Being a forum for bringing together the range of stakeholders involved and interested in public service delivery to share ideas, challenge prejudices, find common cause or identify unbridgeable differences.

A series of events is planned, as well as conference presentations and articles.

Joint research and analysis

The Centre will undertake research and analytical work jointly with other universities and departments at the University of Birmingham.
However, it is recognized that those in the policy and practice communities have much to contribute to our understanding of what makes for successful partnership working. Therefore the Centre will undertake collaborative project work with government departments and political parties, local government, other public sector bodies, businesses, third sector organizations, think tanks, trade unions and the media.

The Centre will work closely with the Third Sector Research Centre which is jointly hosted by the Universities of Birmingham and Southampton. It has established a number of non-pecuniary strategic partnerships. It looks to establish more with organizations in the public, business and third sectors, and to undertake commissioned research as well as to secure long-term research grants. Already projects are underway with the Local Government Association (LGA), CBI, CLG, the Standards Board for England, Service Birmingham, Birmingham City Council, Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS), NAO, Essex County Council, NHS London, NHS Choices, the Worcestershire Partnership and Working Links. More are in the pipeline.

The Centre would be pleased to receive suggestions for areas of research, collaboration and debate. Our aim is to make a positive difference to policy debate, practical public service delivery and academic enquiry.

The Centre has received five-year initial sponsorship from the Aldridge Foundation, Balfour Beatty and Professor Keith Palmer, which meets part of its core costs. Initially the Centre will have a core team of seven people. It is supported by an advisory board of leading experts and practitioners (for details see www.cpsp.bham.ac.uk). The Centre is independent of any vested interests.

Working with the PMPA

The Centre is particularly pleased to be developing a strategic partnership with the PMPA and looks forward to a long and mutually beneficial relationship. One initial focus of this partnership will be the PMPA’s programme on commissioning and service delivery based on third sector and business sector collaboration. Further projects and areas of joint interest are currently being identified.

The current crises

The contemporary environment will be a major opportunity for effective public service partnerships. The events of recent weeks in the financial markets and the economic downturn will lead public agencies and their partners to consider how best to respond. Partnerships across the public sector and between public agencies and the business and third sectors will have a very important role to play. New models need to be found for future needs. The Centre is in active dialogue with others to see what contribution it can make to support a successful response to the crises. Moreover, there can be little doubt that politicians and public service managers will have to become more
effective in partnership working.

John Tizard is Director of the Centre for Public Service Partnerships, University of Birmingham.