Dancing while Standing Still

By Drew Mackie

The last few years have seen an orgy of partnership building in the UK. The government's urge towards "joined up thinking" has led to the formation of a swathe of partnerships that attempt to bring together various departmental interests, quangos and voluntary organisations. Every bid to Whitehall or to Europe needs to show how other organisations are involved and how the affected community will be consulted. The appropriate boxes must be ticked if the bid is to succeed. This is a great and welcome change from a decade ago when government and local authority departments worked in isolation and the disadvantages of such a system were obvious in patchy and partial delivery.

Partnerships have become the fashionable way to do things. Even small authorities may be involved in around thirty partnerships covering matters from the transport to health. It becomes more and more difficult to track the delivery record of such a system and allocate responsibility for success or failure. Many partnerships have become talking shops, the mere fact of having formed the partnership being taken as a sign of action.

A parallel development is community involvement. Again all bids will require to demonstrate how this is to be done. We have moved from a situation a decade ago where the involvement of the community was rare to one where it is obligatory. Two problems have emerged:

Taken together we have a dangerous cocktail here. On the one hand the delivery system itself is struggling to make sense of partnership working while communities are becoming turned off by ineffective involvement processes which encourage them to learn more about their problems without necessarily delivering solutions. One city now pays local people to attend local community events - with the result that nobody will now attend such events unless they get paid.

The danger is a backlash against both partnerships and public involvement. The two strands of partnership and community involvement have encouraged great expectations but may have acted as a substitute rather than a stimulus for the improved delivery of services and development. In themselves they are laudable and many of us have spent our lives trying to encourage them. All this may be at risk if both partnerships and community involvement are not made more effective.

The point is that processes of partnership and involvement are means to an end and that end is the more efficient and equitable delivery of services and facilities. At the same time as improving the liaison between and within agencies and communities we should be examining the processes of delivery. They are the opposite sides of the same coin. More work needs to be done on the processes, structures and vehicles of partnership working. Too often a partnership is just a bunch of people from different organisations who just happen to be present in the same room, giving the impression of dancing together while actually standing still.

We need to develop methods which tap the potential and synergy of "joined up organisations" and these are likely to be based on network rather than traditional hierarchical structures. Community involvement must be given its place in these developing networks. Delivery should be the main criterion for thought and action.

Working with a housing community some years ago, I had just finished running a workshop on the problems and opportunities of the estate. An old lady spoke up: "The big problem here's the pipeline!" The attending consultants were non-plussed - they didn't know about this. Gas? Water? What pipeline? She went on: "Every time a man from the Council comes down here, he says its all in the pipeline. That's the biggest problem!"

Got it in one, dear!

Drew Mackie <drewmackie@m2ud.com>

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