The changing nature of relationships

We hear much about the changing nature of relationships. In a COVID world and in respect of “lockdown” we have all had to find new digital ways to communicate be it personal or commercial.

This idea of “Relationalism” – the idea of putting more emphasis on a culture that promotes equality, trust, transparency and collaboration has always been at the core of my beliefs. Back in 1995 I don’t think the world was ready to move away from a more transactional environment and in my case a client/contractor focus. The private sector that could partner with a local authority on a relational basis as opposed to contract simply did not exist.

Although the need is obvious in a post COVID world to make changes to the way we think and behave, I still have my doubts as to the competence of public and private sectors to bring about successful new forms of partnering outcomes. That is not to say there is any lack of willingness and there are right now, magnificent examples of public procurement and former competitors collaborating with each other to deliver PPE and an enhanced testing capability. The problem is that the legal, financial, social and economic frameworks are not yet there to support this new way of working. Academia is on the case examining these issues especially in relation to Procurement but there is much still to be done in terms of changing people’s attitudes. Many individuals without proper training remain risk averse.

I have experienced the different cultures of both local government and private companies over my career, all of which prompted much discussion about what helps and what hinders partnering. It all led to a recognition that the academic institutions will have to research where we are in our thinking and practices and where we could be if the opportunity that this dreadful virus has presented us with is captured.

I am now involved with the Centre for Partnering in partnership with Stirling University, Manchester MU, Newcastle Business School, and Blavatnik School of Government (Oxford University). Together, we are establishing a new Think Tank and undertaking a Research programme addressing these very partnering issues. We plan to do this in the context of partnering outcomes which address the Social Determinants of Health and the impact of a more Relational culture.

Interestingly, we are now embarking upon our search for market partners and potentially future stakeholders in this new Think Tank. The design of the appointment process will need to ensure that these organisations are able to contribute new thinking in relation to their past and recent partnering experiences. Will they be able to balance the need for commerciality alongside community interests within the social care, infrastructure investment and digital markets? These different markets are a particular focus for the Centre and each have particular issues to address from failing to deliver all the way through to delivering in a different way. How can they collaborate in a more expansive way with the Voluntary and Third sectors who will have an increasingly crucial role in the future?

I can remember in a former life travelling internationally and in the Middle East where I learnt the importance of putting relationships first before doing business with each other. For me, it all made perfect sense whereas I was used to a tendering environment which preceded the forming of a relationship until after the contract had been won. It’s easier to make promises about the future than it is to gain trust through an open and transparent negotiation.

In a post-Carillion world there is still much to be done in promoting the need for partnering. There is limited capacity within the public sector which is already under pressure. Add to this the trillions of public borrowing which may take decades to repay and it is clear we need right-minded organisations, be they private or third sectors, to help achieve commercial and social value. In my view this demands a change to the Partnering cultural framework. To achieve successful partnering outcomes in the future, I believe we must have more joint dialogue within a changed procurement process. The Centre for Partnering is at the heart of this debate and the forces of ‘Relationalism’ which were constrained in 1995 may finally have their day in 2020 and beyond.

Professor Richard Smith
Stirling University