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FRONT LINE FIRST-SOCIAL SERVICES

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Partnerships are now obligatory. Big ones, little ones - even crazy ones. The government has a near-obsession with ...
Partnerships are now obligatory. Big ones, little ones - even crazy ones. The government has a near-obsession with partnerships becoming the vehicle for virtually every new initiative.

The irony is that as government - as far as England is concerned, at least - becomes more centralised and consolidated, so we at local level use up scarce management resources on trying to start up and support an endless supply of devolved set-ups.

Trusts, advisory groups, service-user parliaments, and a range of more democratic structures may all be highly desirable, but they are far less important than getting mainstream services right. Partnership development is a bureaucratic mantra. Heretical as it sounds, partnerships are only worth the investment if they do things that can not be done more simply.

When partnerships do work, they are brilliant. They are invariably fronted by committed and imaginative staff from across the public sector. One such example is the Big Deal Project, a scheme commissioned by the Drug Action Team for Barking & Dagenham LBC, and Havering LBC.

Young people, identified through local youth services, have worked for six months with the Studio 3 Arts production company to produce a video about the realities and dangers of drug misuse, and what can be done to get off drugs and get a grip on life.

The young people involved in the project will be accredited by the University of East London - one of a number of partners in the project, which include councils and the police. What started as a small-scale youth inclusion project could lead to some of the young people becoming peer educators. The video will be shown in schools - which the young people involved see as leaving something behind to help others - and could be extended to producing videos on race, bullying, and other issues.

Big Deal has been supported by the same few staff from different local organisations who turn up at a range of partnerships wearing a variety of different hats. There is a limit to what they can do. They are a precious resource. I want them to use their time and energy on projects like Big Deal, which make a difference on the ground, but in reality far too much of their time is spent on responding to audits and inspections, and satisfying the craving for information and data from their own organisations, government departments and quangoland. Measurement is important, but it is not service delivery.

Local strategic partnerships have their part to play in developing and improving services. But ask yourself whether the time spent in endless partnership boards, joint investment or joint commissioning boards, modernisation review think-tanks - while also attending one-off events as the public sector launches more new products than a supermarket chain - really represents value for money.

Anthony Douglas

Executive director of community services,

Havering LBC

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