Headlines: January 20th, 2004

A new study has questioned the democratic credentials of partnerships. It says while many of them go to great lengths to consult, their decision making processes are often closed. The study – ‘Performing or Conforming? Strengthening the Governance of Partnerships’ – by the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies, analysed 26 partnerships in detail.The report’s authors, Chris Skelcher, Mike Smith and Navdeep Mathur, interviewed almost 50 board members, managers and civil servants. Their findings, reported by the partnership support body, Ourpartnership.org, include suggestions of practical ways to improve local accountability.

The study found that where partnerships, such as Sure Start and the New Deal for Communities, have community and user board members, there was considerable stress on them in terms of unpaid time commitment and responsibility. Many partnerships made assertions about their accountability to the communities they served but in one case a regeneration partnership manager said they were accountable to the Regional Development Agency and so could not suddenly change the programme if the community wanted money spent on something else.

The report’s recommendations for strengthening of local accountability suggest governance systems should be proportional to the nature of risk involved. Some partnerships, the study found, were big spenders and had a major impact on the community but others had few resources and were essentially about facilitating co-operation. The authors say, too, that the debate on public interest companies and mutuals is an important way forward for collaborative public effort.

The report also questions the position of partnerships which spend public money or deliver national targets and which face micro-accountability on a project-by-project basis. It suggests accreditation procedures, such as those of partnerships in the neighbourhood renewal areas, could be a better way to assure funders of low risk and to encourage partnerships to undertake self-assessment of their governance.