As you might expect, we spend a lot of time working with, talking to, and generally engaging with a broad range of councils and other public sector bodies. What is clear from this is that for every person, there is a different view on and experience of partnering, or working in partnership.
It might also be fair to say that much of what is described as partnering is, in fact, not so much a partnership, as a contract between the public and private sectors for a relatively narrow purpose. Calling a contract where one party is the client and the other a contractor a partnership is wrong. A true partnership implies a coming together of equals where skills and resources are combined to achieve an outcome that neither could have reached on their own. So, calling something a partnership that isn’t really, often means that perceptions of how partnerships work and perform can be skewed, frequently unfavourably.
Within the public sector, there remains a, possibly not unreasonably held view, that the private sector are, generally, not good partners. This can arise for a variety of reasons and the causes of these likely sit on both side of the equation. This need not be the case and, frequently, it is cultural and linguistic differences that can give rise to friction.
Rather than dwell on the negatives, it is far better to look at things from the other perspective. What is it that makes for a great partnership?
Equality – Any relationship must be balanced with each partner having equality with the other. The power dynamics of a lopsided relationship inevitably lead to tensions or misunderstandings of the role and contribution of each partner.
Alignment – Without a shared vision and an alignment of goals and objectives, partners will be pulling in different directions. Any outcome achieved from the partnership ought to offer up a win-win for each partner. If what is good for the partnership is not good for either of the partners then it is probably time to set some different objectives for it.
Communication – As old as the dawn of time, but free flowing, open and transparent communication is essential. As in life and relationships, so with partnerships. It is rare that any partner will over-communicate, but so often partners mis-communicate, fail to communicate or make assumptions about what the other partner knows or ought to know. There are dissertations to be written about communication, but it is safe to say that for partnerships, less is certainly not more. That said, losing key messages in torrents of words and then saying ‘I already told you’ is not a satisfactory position either. So, make sure messages are clear, unambiguous and, if they’re important, say so!
Governance – Knowing who is supposed to do what, when they are supposed to do it and how it will happen are key ingredients in making a partnership work smoothly. And, importantly, what should you do if things go wrong? There is so often a tendency to assume because things are rosy at the outset that focusing on how to address matters when things aren’t rosy might upset the other side. A bit like telling your partner that you want a pre-nup before you move in together. They might be upset that you are already thinking about leaving them, but you will both be grateful for it should the worst happen and you might still be friends after if you can de-construct things without the need of courts and lawyers.
Trust – If you don’t trust your potential partner, don’t become partners. Simple as that. You can’t be equal, well aligned and communicate honestly without trust in the other party. You need to trust that what you are being told is truthful and accurate and, likewise, your partner should expect the same from you.
So, distilling this all back to its essence. Partnering is likely to be hard work and will take time and commitment from both partners. Like any good relationship, you have to work at it, encourage and support the other partner and overlook the occasional transgression.
Can any partnership be perfect? Almost inevitably not. However, it can be an effective and rewarding way of doing so much more than any one party might have done on their own. If the outcomes you are both striving so hard to achieve are delivered, then all of the time and energy invested will be well worthwhile.