Partnering is a verb

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Part of Healthy communities together

How can leaders of statutory health and care organisations partner with voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations in a way that makes the most of these relationships and their transformative potential? Here we recommend the courage to question, and realising the force of a ‘follow’, as two simple and powerful techniques in the work of partnering. 

Partnership working between the NHS, local authority and VCSE organisations is integral to how leaders are being asked to work to reduce inequalities and improve health and wellbeing for communities, both locally and at a system level. As part of the Healthy Communities Together programme, funded by The National Lottery Community Fund and with support for partners from The King’s Fund, we have been learning from six partnerships of VCSE, NHS and local authorities about what helps these relationships to succeed in practice. 

For leaders of statutory organisations, partnering with VCSE organisations, especially grass-roots organisations, can be transformative... 

For leaders of statutory organisations, partnering with VCSE organisations, especially grass-roots organisations, can be transformative, offering the potential to bring communities’ voices, experiences and resources into the core of work to improve health and wellbeing. Partnering also asks all leaders to work in new, more collaborative and equitable ways, which move beyond ‘commissioning’ or ad hoc ‘consultation’ relationships. It asks them to model and learn from the kinds of partnering relationships frontline staff are forging with individuals and their communities to support them to improve their health and wellbeing.  

In practice, forming partnerships between statutory organisations, and between statutory organisations and VCSE organisations has often proved difficult.  

We have learnt that the first step in realising the transformative potential of partnering is to see developing these relationships and ways of working as a significant part of the task. The membership, shape and purpose of partnerships is often fluid and continually shifting. Rather than trying to hold steady a thing called a ‘partnership’ to deliver a task, it is more productive to focus on developing the skills and relationships to collaborate – or ‘partner’ – well across the system, whatever the organisational context.  

The research literature on cross-sector partnership working emphasises strong relationships, trust and honest communication as core components of a successful partnerships. But what does this look like in practice? In the partnering work we’ve observed this year, two simple, practical techniques have emerged as particularly powerful. They seem to transform how partners relate to one another and engage their collective minds to think differently.  

It’s been striking how someone taking the plunge to interject with what feels like an ignorance-revealing or difficult question can shift the partnership’s work on to a more meaningful and transformative track.

The first is having the courage to question. It’s been striking how someone taking the plunge to interject with what feels like an ignorance-revealing or difficult question can shift the partnership’s work on to a more meaningful and transformative track. For example, here is a partner speaking at a meeting five months into their partnership’s work together: ‘If I’m honest, I still at times find it hard to articulate what we [as a partnership] do.’ They later reflected how difficult it had been to make that interjection: 'I felt anxious to verbalise it. I could see [the lead partner] thinking "Oh my god, she still doesn’t get it".’ And yet this contribution unlocked a conversation. Other partners voiced similar concerns, and together the partnership began to re-engage with its purpose in a more genuinely collective way.  

The second insight is that sometimes such questions (and the deeper issues they may point to) need to be amplified or validated by a powerful member of the group in order to be really heard and engaged with. We saw occasions where potentially transformative questions and observations were left hanging. It’s easy to allow this to happen when a question disrupts the dominant flow of conversation or highlights a challenging issue without an obvious solution. 

But we also saw the power of effective ‘follows’ (a term from David Kantor’s dialogue theory), where other partners picked up and reinforced the issue raised. This might not be immediate (so don’t feel your opportunity has passed), and crucially doesn’t require offering a solution. The point is to reflect back, and build on the point made, in a way that recognises and honours the original contribution. 

Using these kinds of techniques in conversations is one practical way to move towards truly transformational work. As the organisation-development practitioner and thinker Myron Kellner-Rogers articulates it: ‘The process you use to get to the future is the future you get.’ 
 
We will be spending the next three years working in partnership with The National Lottery Community Fund and the Healthy Communities Together partnerships to draw out and share observations about what it looks like to partner in practice, as the partnerships evolve and learn. We will continue to share practical insights from this work as we go. Please share your own experiences and learning of working in partnerships in the comments below.  

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