Headlines: October 26th, 2005

Partnership working by local public bodies has led to real benefits for the people who use their services, according to a report published today by the Audit Commission. But the report says those benefits are undermined too often by blurred lines of accountability leading to poor value for money.Today’s report, “Governing Partnerships: Bridging the Accountability Gap” calls on public organisations to look hard at partnerships in which they are involved to ensure that they are delivering. It says partnerships involving local authorities, primary care trusts and the police, are now a significant feature of public service delivery. The most recent figures put the number of such arrangements at around 5,500 across the United Kingdom, accounting for about four billion pounds of public expenditure.

The Commission says there are powerful incentives for organisations to work with others and all local public bodies are now working in partnerships to some degree. Partnerships, it believes, can respond flexibly and innovatively to problems that would be hard for a body working alone to deal with.

Partnerships with other organisations do, though, have drawbacks and working across boundaries can lead to complexity and ambiguity that can generate confusion and weaken accountability. The report says that some organisations even admit they do not know how many partnerships they are involved in.

The Commission’s study makes a number of recommendations including calling on every public body to review each of its partnerships and to take hard decisions to scale down involvement where costs outweigh benefits. It also urges local public bodies to tell the public where accountability lies and how they can obtain redress through a joint complaints procedure. Turning to central government, the report recommends that consideration is given, within the context of local area agreements, to how the current range of partnerships can be rationalised, leading to fewer, more outcome-focused targets that measure cross-cutting achievements. The report excludes consideration of public-private partnerships and private finance initiative agreements.

The Audit Commission Chairman, James Strachan, said partnerships were bringing tangible benefits to public services but much more could be achieved if they were all governed well. “It is a cause for concern that some partnerships add confusion and cost, while delivering little. Local public bodies should ask much more searching questions about the partnerships they are engaged in,” he said.