Authors:Vicky Ling
Last updated:2023-11-10
Collaborate, survive and thrive
Marc Bloomfield
Vicky Ling reports on research showing how collaboration between local authorities, government departments, and third sector, commercial and academic organisations can enhance services, reduce costs and – most importantly – improve people’s lives.
Partnership is becoming a key to survival. We’re at a crossroads where we have to work differently. Third sector manager, Bristol.
Collaboration in the social justice sector can tackle the core issues of joblessness, homelessness and poverty, at the same time reducing costs, make better use of scarce resources and meet people’s needs more appropriately. Working across third sector, commercial and academic organisations requires all parties to change, which can be difficult; but the results are often well worthwhile.
Luton BC recently calculated that its collaboration with the third sector, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the NHS to provide a more streamlined access and referral pathway delivered over £1m in public value benefit and savings in a nine-month period. £120,000 was a direct saving to the council through preventing 26 families from becoming homeless. There were also significant savings for the DWP (£360,000), as complex cases were resolved with less intervention from it, and the NHS (£22,000), through saving GP time that would otherwise have been spent dealing with non-health matters. The other benefits were improved economic activity, debt resolution and income maximisation (£680,000).
The Legal Education Foundation was interested in identifying what prompted the trend towards greater partnership working, the objectives that the partners hoped to achieve and the extent to which they were achieved in practice. It funded a research project in three areas in which there were developments of particular interest – Bristol, Luton and Suffolk – and a ‘how to’ guide that identifies the factors that made collaboration work in the research areas. The project would not have been possible without the generosity of those who explained what they were doing, and shared their experiences of what worked more, or less, successfully and the adjustments they made along the way. The guide provides practical hints, tips and checklists, based on their experience. It also contains links to wider best practice materials.
Success factors
All three geographical areas agreed that collaboration was worthwhile, and some thought it was essential to survival, but the experience of a successful project differed from place to place. People stressed that collaboration works differently in different regions. Twelve factors were identified as contributing to successful collaboration.
1. Analyse need and plan
It was important to take some time to think through local needs and identify underlying issues, so that the partnerships could involve the right mix of agencies to tackle them. Developing a theory of change and a business case was a key first stage.
2. Recognise the importance of data
The partners in the research areas found that sharing data allowed them to demonstrate the need for their services more powerfully than they could by collecting it individually.
People will not commit resources to collaborative working unless it can be shown to achieve results. Data is critically important as evidence of need when designing services. It is equally essential to monitoring, evaluation and accountability. The partners in the research areas found that sharing data allowed them to demonstrate the need for their services more powerfully than they could by collecting it individually. It also helped them show funders the impact their redesigned services were having and that they were financially worthwhile.
Sharing information is a big issue for us. Information assurance is important as you’ve got client data. We have all agreed an information-sharing protocol. Third sector manager, Suffolk.
3. Identify the key partners
In all three areas, both statutory and third sector agencies were involved. The statutory agencies were local authorities and health authorities such as clinical commissioning groups. Universities were partners in all three areas. In Bristol and Suffolk, there was also significant involvement of private sector organisations such as solicitors’ firms and local law societies. In Luton and Suffolk, there was significant involvement of local trusts.
We led the pro bono network with the Law Society, chambers etc. Everyone who had a pro bono partnership worked together. We only did it because we’d heard they had one in Birmingham. The BPP co-ordinator mentioned it. Third sector manager, Bristol.
Some third sector agencies worked with commercial organisations, but they tended to be part of a wider network and were not part of the core group in any of the areas.
4. Identify core members
In each of the three areas, there was a relatively small number of key partners, from both the statutory and voluntary sectors, that formed a core group. They could support a wider network that did not need to be so closely involved in strategy and leadership.
Core group members have to have a clear understanding of the common goals and ways of working. If a partner can’t commit to that, it probably needs to move into the wider network and allow others to drive the initiative from the core group. This prevents friction and conflict from distracting the core group from the strategy it is working towards.
Conversely, when a partner from outside the core group shows it is willing to commit its time and energy at the level required to be a core member, it can join. In Luton, for example, one agency clearly showed it was willing to make that commitment, although in the early days it was part of the wider network rather than the core group.
Trust has to be there. As long as you have a strong core, say three to four, others can be involved outside the core. Third sector manager, Suffolk.
What makes it work – no blockers. We had [X organisation] but they dropped out. Steering the partnership is shared between about five people. Third sector manager, Suffolk.
5. Develop referral pathways
Improving referral pathways was seen as the key to improving services for users and raising efficiency. In Luton, the agencies visited each other and carried out peer reviews of the referral mechanism to make sure it was working as intended.
Partners are a resource, others can solve the client’s problem better. Third sector manager, Bristol.
We get more feedback from where clients go. Now we know we’ve done the right thing. Third sector manager, Luton.
6. Address governance
It was important for collaborative initiatives to be accountable and demonstrate their value, but it was also important not to constrain developments by creating a bureaucratic structure for the partnership itself. More informal models worked better in the research areas.
We’re not a body, we’re not bogged down in governance, we’re not a thing, we can morph. It’s quite big and messy; but it keeps people together. Statutory sector manager, Luton.
Where more formal governance structures were needed, perhaps when bidding for contracts as a group, these could include agreeing a memorandum of understanding, service level agreement or consortium agreement. The ‘how to’ guide contains links to useful resources (page 18).
7. Identify funding to create capacity
People need sufficient flexibility in their jobs to develop relationships, and funding for brokerage can result in more mature partnerships. Funders’ approaches and priorities can have a positive impact on collaboration.
Two things make it work – funding or a funder acting as a driver, and a non-partisan neutral voice to bring people to the table. Third sector manager, Luton.
Some partners were struggling. We had to rally round to help them secure funding. Third sector manager, Bristol.
8. Draw on trust and mutual support
The organisations must have a mutual respect and understanding, and recognise what the others can contribute.
The organisations must have a mutual respect and understanding, and recognise what the others can contribute. There may be disagreements over how objectives are to be achieved, but the core group needs to share a positive approach.
Every time I go to a partnership meeting, I come away feeling as though I have been given a boost. Energised, that feeds across your week. Third sector manager, Suffolk.
9. Embrace challenge
It is important for third sector organisations to have a key role in developing partnerships and the way partners work together to deliver services. However, there can be a danger that partners remain within their comfort zone, talking to other organisations they already know and that think along similar lines. This can be positive, but it can also restrict exposure to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Sometimes funders can use their leverage to challenge the third sector to think in new ways.
We could never have done it without [the local authority’s external consultant]. The other partners were mistrustful of one access point; but she drove the partners so they could see how well it works. Third sector manager, Luton.
10. Be prepared to do things in new ways
People recognised that the difficult financial climate had forced them to consider changing the way they did things. Co-location could be challenging but helped to integrate services.
We have been prepared to develop the relationship over time and find the issues where the local authority and third sector can work together. Better relationships have enabled quicker problem-solving for members of the public when they approach the third sector providers for help as they have direct contact with people in the local authority who can sort out issues. This has enabled the third sector to see more people, and prioritise casework resources for more vulnerable people. Statutory sector manager, Luton.
11. Communicate and engage
Listening to others and having the time to engage more widely was identified as important, as well as explaining what the partnership itself is doing. Managers also need to ensure there is regular communication internally as their colleagues will need to buy into the changes that are being made to the way they work; that isn’t going to happen if they don’t understand why change is needed. They are also likely to have good ideas on the best way to implement the changes.
If you don’t talk to people, you don’t know. I completely get why people can become inwardly focused, dwindling money, demand rising; but that’s how you can find out if there’s a better way. Allowing yourself to feel it’s not an add-on – you need to do this. You drink a lot of coffee. Third sector manager, Bristol.
It’s good for morale. Staff and volunteers can see collaboration working. It helps clients and it helps them. Third sector manager, Luton.
12. Recognise it takes time
Organisations stressed that developing positive collaboration takes time. There may be some ‘quick wins’, but the most valuable outcomes take time to achieve.
We learned quickly from our mistakes – our initial view was that local authority and third sector services could be integrated into one local authority-run organisation. We realised this was a mistake and have been prepared to spend time getting to know the third sector really well and understand its values – why they do the things they do in the ways they do them. Statutory sector manager, Luton.