Keeping up appearances

By Matt van Poortvliet 17 March 2010

‘Working in partnership’ is one of those things that everyone wants to hear. But is it always a good thing? During my recent research on young offenders, a charity CEO took me aside and told me in a conspiratorial whisper that ‘Partnership working is the suppression of mutual loathing in pursuit of government money’.

What did he mean? I had always assumed that ‘partnership working’ was about different organisations working together. Surely that’s positive? Instead of everyone doing their own thing, in their own way and duplicating effort, you coordinate activities, pool risks and resources, and get better results. Policymakers and commissioners are keen on this, and charities are dancing to the tune.

But as that CEO revealed, many charities are privately sceptical about this brave new world. In the youth justice sector, charities describe aggressive competition for funding, a crowded and ‘cut-throat’ market for services, and an extremely uncertain commissioning environment.

At the same time as pulling together, charities are being pushed apart—by competing for the same contracts, guarding knowledge for competitive advantage and driving down one another’s costs. One charity described the appearance of new funding opportunities as akin to a ‘feeding frenzy at the zoo’; elsewhere, a large charity and major public body are squabbling over who gets the publicity for their shared intervention.

There is an assumption that partnership working is always good, but individual examples suggest that the experience can be frustrating, time-consuming and costly to get right. However, these tensions rarely come to light because appearances have to be kept up, a game has to be played: ‘mutual loathing’ is suppressed in pursuit of money.

What are your stories of partnership working? When does it work? What makes it fail? NPC is interested to hear your thoughts.