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Take your partners

25 November 2013

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Partnership working involves more than simply forging ties with other organisations

Partnership. It is one of the words of the moment. The successful implementation of the reforms are predicated on it and yet it is little understood, hardly practised and is supposed to evolve from nowhere as the natural side effect of any two or more organisations getting together. In reality successful and productive partnership relationships need to not just evolve but to be proactively developed. 

First there needs to be recognition of why partnership relationships are so important in the emerging health and care environment. Take as examples two important sets of relationships – the relationship between service providers and the relationship between the different components of the commissioning process. If we are to truly provide an integrated service that is centred on the patient and the carer, then service providers need to work together. However, an integrated service is far too often considered as simply integrating or merging organisations as the means of providing a patient-centred service. This approach is seen in many of the integrated community foundation trusts that use ‘partnership’ as part of their name. The potential risk inherent in this approach is that it creates an organisation too large to be flexible and capable of evolving – the very characteristics that success in the current environment requires. A more sustainable approach is for a group of organisations to work together in partnership as expected in the prime contractor model. It it is critical that practices, commissioners and health and wellbeing boards function effectively together. It is not enough that the senior teams meet occasionally as required but there needs to be a joined-up partnership approach throughout the whole of the organisations. There needs to be a strong partnership forged to enable robust discussion and optimum shared decision making. The method for forging these strong partnerships follows the same principles and processes.

Effective partnerships between organisations usually demonstrate the following attributes:

– Shared purpose or an overt agreement with each other’s purpose.

 – Shared values and beliefs.

– Agreed processes of how the organisations will work together.

– Multiple individual relationships at all levels of the organisations.

If a partnership relationship is simply ‘allowed to happen’ then one or more of the above can be missing. 

Shared purpose

This is often done well. A senior team from each of the organisations involved meet and agree a set of words that reflect their purpose and identity as partner organisations. However, is it then communicated to the staff of the organisations and to the required external stakeholders? If you walk into most organisations that are working in partnership with another and ask the question to staff, far too often there is no clear answer.

Shared values and beliefs

This starts to get problematic in that theoretical values and beliefs are little more than motherhood and apple pie. These truly have to be shared across the partner organisations and this can only come from understanding the culture of the organisations and effective staff engagement. 

Agreed processes

Sadly what is more often seen here is imposed processes. The larger of the partners dictates the terms and conditions of how the partnership will deliver on the agreed purpose. This is normal in a ‘sales’ transaction but not in a partnership where there has to be an agreement to ways of working that enable the organisations as well as the integrated partnership to thrive.

Multiple individual relationships

In new partnerships often a team from each participating organisation develops and agrees the first three process driven actions but little regard is given to create the opportunity for relationships to develop within and between the partner organisations. This has to be actively facilitated in the first instance. As a more junior member of staff do you really want to work closely with and supply information to someone who you have never met, had the chance to meet or ever likely to meet? Where there is a need for an ongoing working relationship it is beholden on the organisations to facilitate that relationship. Partnership working it is vital to successful commissioning and there are four simple steps to deliver that success. Are you making the necessary investment?