Addressing complex economic, political and social issues

What do we mean by partnering?

Partnership is one of the most commonly used but least well-defined concepts in contemporary public policy, politics and management. One reason for this is the range of activities that it might be understood to involve some kind of co-ordination, co-operation, collaboration, network, alliance, assistance or help. These range from informal associations of mutual understanding through to formal, legal contracts which cover the transaction of specified levels of service within a set regime of costs.

We take partnering to mean when organisations collaborate to work together towards shared objectives. A thin version of partnering is contracting is which the principal contracts with an agent to undertake a task. It is entirely transactional, based on a complex legal agreement with a financial interest at its heart. This model is typical in the vast majority of government procurement. A thicker version of partnering based on a strategic, moral and value-led commitment to shared objectives of greater social value at optimum cost. This form of partnering recognises the importance of relationships to underpin genuine collaboration based on mutual respect and recognition.

This idea of relationality is increasingly influential, for example in the following disciplines:

  • Complexity economics suggests that the economy is in perpetual motion due to continually changing sets of relationships and arrangements that adapt to new contingencies.

  • Network theory where networks create trusting relationships, resilience and social value.

  • Relational leadership is the idea that leadership is reliant more on the interdependencies of people and organisations than it is on the attributes of some heroic individual.

  • Social capital where relationships between people and organisations are productive.

  • Strategic partnering is a long term relationship for mutual benefit based on shared values and goals.

In partnering, growing research suggests that relationality – not ironclad contracts – are key to effective partnering (Maltin, Harvard Business Review, 2019).

The failures of outsourcing in recent years can largely be attributed to a mismatch of cultures and values and an absence of relationality between the commissioning and contracting organisations.

In the UK, the public, private and third sectors are deeply entwined

The interest in partnership is at root an interest in addressing complex economic, political and social issues which arise from the limitations of modern economies.

In the UK, the public, private and third sectors are deeply entwined and integrated in the delivery of public services and in the economy more widely. In 2015–16, central and local government spent a combined £251.5 billion with external suppliers of goods and services with around 200,000 companies and charities delivering services to or for the public sector across the country.

As the the Public Administration Select Committee, argued “It is intolerable that the Government is spending £250 billion with little evidence that it is currently following its own procedures to secure value for money.”

Furthermore, public trust in the outsourcing has been seriously damaged recently. This is due to a number of high profile failures–including the failure of Carillion.