Getting the best out of partnerships
1 March, 2005

Stephen Reeve, University of Brighton and Warren Hatter, Head of Research, NLGN
Public Service Director

Senior executives and operational managers are having to think more deeply about the dynamics of partnership as the public service economy moves toward a variety of partnering models. While aspects of the debate have been fuelled by deep-rooted principles for and against public-private partnering, such managers are in the frame and have more immediate delivery concerns in mind.

How to get the best out of a partnership, beyond the novelty of the new structures, is something that the New Local Government Network (NLGN) and the University of Brighton were keen to find out. In an innovative attempt to discover what it is like to be a responsible manager within partnership, the University’s Business School convened a series of forums where senior managers from all sides told them exactly that. In a research atmosphere, with appropriate concerns for anonymity, experienced partnership practitioners shared knowledge, incidents, problems and success stories. Collected and analysed, the lessons we have drawn from direct and raw practice lies behind a new report Beyond Contract: what makes a PPP successful?

Highly open and direct, the forums revealed that there is a great deal more than meets the eye in coordinating complex partnership. While suggesting many useful experience-based recommendations, it became clear that the rules for managing partnership between public, private and even voluntary spheres remain to a great extent unwritten. The kind of problems the managers are encountering and the methods for dealing with them, the degree of freedom of action and how to cope with extreme novelty demonstrate that PPPs hide a complex mystery.

There is a pivotal concept which underlies much of the confusion and difficulty experienced – the new territory which exists beyond standard contractual obligations, and also beyond traditional internal command and control mechanisms.

Again and again, we came across examples of “Where do you go?” when you have neither the commonly understood authority which exists within a public organisation, nor the willingness to drive to contract if that risks breaking up much delicately negotiated performance. Crossing these partnership boundaries starkly illustrates the limits of conventional managerial practice, and the blunting of traditional managerial tools.

Into this vacuum, senior and operational managers are inventing their own new protocols and generating innovative practice. They are filling the gaps with a new array of skills, which revolve heavily around coordination, negotiation, persuasion, diplomacy and change-management. Although providing novel solutions, this is not without cost. Somewhat to their own surprise, the managers who took part in the forum concurred in expressing the loneliness of this new type of management – where neither sufficient numbers of professional colleagues nor a stock of experiential knowledge, exist to give comfort to their often hard decisions.

Further, good partnership practice requires an unusually large investment of personal goodwill and emotional commitment during the early ‘bedding in’ phases. Although this pays back later (and is essential for success) the participants in the forum reported how draining and exhaustive the process was; how different it was to their experience of conventional management; and how no one had prepared them for it.

In fact the issue of preparation was a frequently voiced concern – again neither experience nor text books provided the necessary route map when it came to getting things done across organisational, professional and cultural divides. Committed managers within partnership are often not in a position to order or instruct across a professional or organisational boundary. Neither do they wish to be perceived as an old fashioned contract manager by reverting to the letter of the contract. Instead they forge new communications channels, bring to bear powers of persuasion and demonstrate commitment to joint aims – all of which place heavy demand on energy levels.

Another aspect of partnership life which was brought to light concerned the frequently encountered stories about hand over. Made more specific through example and incident, the participants elaborated a view that put some clear blue water between themselves as managers, and the strategists and politicians who construct the static agreement, contract or partnership.

Here, the idealised world of agreement rapidly gives way to less optimal conditions as hand over from one group of professionals to another – from negotiation teams to implementation teams, from change management ‘champions’ to process groups, from one department in an organisational hierarchy to another, across organisational, sectoral, professional and political boundaries – pulls apart the DNA of the original partnership mission.

Indeed, attempting to manage the identification, understanding and rectification of such drift was considered to be one of the dominant issues and key differentiators for senior partnership managers. As one forum participant observed: “It’s about working together on key things, joint-learning, generating protocols and being able to live with the aggravation that comes with discovering bits of the contract aren’t right”

One of the more unexpected findings related to dynamic behaviour in deteriorating partnership relationships. The most frequently expressed view was that when partnering goodwill started to breakdown, individuals at differing hierarchical levels reverted to ‘safety’ and ‘bunkers’, and not to the letter and legal obligations and duties of the contract. Contrary to conventional thought, there is a flight to profession, or to organisational or departmental loyalty, not to contract when the chips are down. The participants again felt that the managerial resolution of such problems defined the new territory and set them apart from conventional practice.

In line with expectations, there was some dissent between the representative sides to the new practices, where both risk and project management discussions reveal the distinctions to be found between overtly private or public sectors. The accurate identification of (and even of knowing where to look for) risk was a focus for debate where the differences between the private and public worldviews were perhaps starkest. The private ethos seemed much more attuned to calculating risk and then acting on it, whereas accountability and prevention were more familiar public themes: “We have to sufficiently understand each others’ drivers here. It is critical for the private side to really understand what information is needed to assess risk, but often this information is not kept by the public sector”.

What we have found is a world of senior managers reaching for new, ever more creative tool sets as the need to engage in “messy” and “complex” activity – and increasingly so in the absence of a traditional compass, or set of known solutions. Future scenario setting, exploring the often under-considered emotional aspects of radical change and achieving genuine agreement as to what was meant by partnership were proposed: “The vision phase is developmental and learning-based … practice, simulation, games – all might help partners understand each other … creative visioning techniques can help to clarify what might be meant by the partnership; to really focus on the desired outcomes with those involved; and to discuss what it will feel like”.

A hazier, but no less powerful interest was expressed in the unusually long contract lengths, the nature of maturing partnership and resultant third party vehicles. Virtual, or actual, third party vehicles or boards did not seem to the managers in our forum to have the resilience of genuine or organic organisational forms yet, and may run into difficulties later when partnerships need to grapple with more complex issues like knowledge management, innovation stimulation and ownership.

Beyond Contract shows that actual practice is still way ahead of the Business Schools and their conventional recipes for training and development. It is also forging ahead of the professions, and accepted cultural norms of both public and private sector. It demonstrates that despite the cynical view that ‘partnership’ may be more rhetorical than real, managers have taken to heart the ethos of partnership working.

Further, within the new partnership landscape, a new form of management behaviour has taken root where managers strive to behave as if in true partnership and with limited recourse to contractual support. This raises a fascinating set of considerations and ethical positions, far more complex than the ‘good/bad’ debate generally held at national level. These new stresses and catalysts for operational change are generating the need for new kinds of manager and new kinds of practice. Those at director and executive level would be well advised to consider the need for this capacity over the long term horizons associated with contemporary partnership models.

Stephen Reeve, University of Brighton Business School and Warren Hatter, New Local Government Network (NLGN) Beyond Contract: what makes a PPP successful? is published by NLGN and available, price £21.25 (inc p&p) from or 020 7357 0051.