Getting a partnership going is easier said than done. Bringing organisations with different aims together is not necessarily the problem. But achieving consensus and compromise are tough challenges that demand a little more than sharp negotiation skills and good will.
However, as the Oldham Partnership has proved, when things do work, everyone benefits. With over one hundred organisations - including Oldham MBC, the police, health services, central government agencies, private businesses, community and voluntary bodies - the winner of the Partnership Award in the 2006 LGC/HSJ Sustainable Communities Awards is an example of how old-fashioned liaison work can pay off.
The partnership was formally accredited with local strategic partnership status in 2002, but its work goes as far back as 1994, through the former Oldham Partnership Board.
Over the past 12 years, organisations across the borough have sat together to discuss shared priorities and develop a vision for Oldham. Partners have worked on various targets that have been brought together in a series of strategic documents: Oldham framework (1999), Record of achievement (2001), Community strategy (2002), and the Local area agreement (2006).
Oldham's chief executive Andrew Kilburn, says the partnership works so well because it has 'matured over a period of time'. He adds that its work has been crucial in helping local partners tackle important issues such as cohesion and regeneration.
'Our challenge is to develop a shared understanding of what the agenda is and recognise the contribution all organisations can make,' he says.
To encourage organisations to contribute, the partnership prides itself on the fact everyone has easy access to its executive and steering group.
The executive commissions work in line with the community strategy and LAA, and its work is supported by the steering group, which is the debating forum of the partnership including representatives from voluntary and community sectors.
Before embarking on any project, a detailed technical appraisal takes place to ensure the work will contribute to some of the Oldham Partnership's targets and that it can deliver value for money.
The work of the partnership is linked to performance management, ensuring that it reflects local objectives. 'Targets are set so that their local application and delivery remain central to the partnership's work,' says Mr Kilburn.
The organisation tries to develop tangible goals for all partners involved. For example, in 2004 the partnership and the North West Development Agency jointly commissioned Oldham Beyond, a 20-year regeneration vision. This gave a blueprint for the transformational regeneration which will take place in the area as well as clear targets for partners to work towards.
But, as with any partnership, Oldham is not immune to tensions and conflicts of interest. Mr Kilburn emphasises, however, that when partners work together within a structure that is clear, transparent and fit for purpose, these dissonances can easily be resolved.
'There are tensions at times. You manage them in an open and positive way. There is a recognition that everybody is around the table for a particular purpose, and people occasionally recognise their own particular interest is not one that can be pursued at a particular point in time.'
There is also some conflict between the executive and the steering group. Bill Edwards, a local resident who chairs the steering group, believes this is positive as it keeps everyone on track.
'The tension between the steering group and the executive is interesting,' he says. 'Because of the LAA, we are running very fast into a strongly government-defined route which tells us the things we should measure and our targets. The big challenge for the people of Oldham is to be involved in the running of the town and in the decision making, and yet many of our targets don't fall easily within LAA targets.'
The steering group's main role, therefore, is to keep the debate going. 'We can keep the executive under scrutiny; if it does something we don't agree with, we can say 'hang on, that is not what we told you to do'.'
Partners meet outside formal settings to discuss issues important to their sectors. There are also thematic partnerships (cohesion, community engagement, culture & sport, environment and sustainability, safe and strong communities, housing, economic development & enterprise, health & children and young people) and six area committees.
'This structure means every organisation has a route through to the executive and steering group,' explains Mr Edwards.
The hard work seems to be paying off. Mr Edwards says that over the years decision makers and statutory bodies, such as the council, police and health authority, are increasingly bringing the partnership on board for discussions.
Through the partnership, the local community has also benefited. 'There are many things which were only possible because of the partnership,' explains Nick Brown, chair of the executive group. 'For example, there has been a huge increase in the number of people in Oldham who are qualified and go through graduate training.'
He adds: 'Another thing we are really pleased about is the fact that there is cross-party political support. This shows that if you do something right, people will go out of the way to support it. For example, in the early 1990s Oldham was the worst performing borough in the country for students at 18 years of age, now it is in the top third. This success has taken place entirely in a multi-racial context and was facilitated by the work of the partnership.'
To enter this year's awards visit
When the council sold the Royton Assembly Hall to a private developer, rumours went around that the facility would be turned into a mosque or an Asian wedding venue. This upset local residents, who wanted the whole community to be able to use the facility.
To dispel any myths and establish an open channel of communication, the partnership organised meetings between the developers and the community representatives as part of the Building Good Relations project, which aims to encourage people to engage with contentious or difficult issues in the community.
'In a borough which was faced with race riots some years ago, people were really losing the plot when they were told this facility would be used only by the ethnic population,' explains local resident Pearl Malcolmson.
After meeting with the developers, it became clear that the hall would become an events venue, which would boost economic development.
Ms Malcolmson, who took part in the talks, adds that the work with the developers put local networks in touch with each other. 'Some of our activities overlap and it is much easier to work together than operate in isolation,' she says.
Listening to all
'It was brilliant to have our voices heard,' says 35-year-old Fozia Anjum, a Muslim of Pakistani origin.
She is one of the 25 women who participated in the Hidden Voices initiative, which is another part of the Building Good Relations project.
Hidden Voices worked with Asian women of different age groups to understand their attitudes to and perceptions of inclusion and exclusion in civic life.
They discussed inter-generational differences and their feelings about when they felt involved or not at home and at school, and in the wider social and political context.
Ms Anjum says that having a council officer, an Asian woman, to listen to women's views is a step forward.
'They were there to discuss what we can do for our community. Usually the majority of people involved are men, not women.
'This is the first time we had an all-women meeting, which was really nice. We need more opportunities like that so that our views and comments are taken into consideration.'
She says this type of initiative can help the council engage with the Asian community more effectively as well as boost women's self-esteem and participation in the community.
'Our voices are not usually heard,' she adds. 'What we want in our community may not be what men want, so we need a meeting place. Perhaps we should meet on a regular basis to discuss the issues which are important to us.'