The Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham was asked by the District Councils’ Network look at a range of partnerships either led by or centred on districts.
Our report, Building Better Collaboration, was launched at a joint district/county summit on devolution in two-tier areas.
The study has a strong qualitative flavour in seeking experience from more than 30 partnerships and across a range of interviewees, including both health and business voices. We identified five behaviours/attributes that seem to be disproportionately important in determining the success or failure of collaborative ventures: leadership, selflessness, trust, momentum and risk.
Some of these seemed the most significant for project outcomes: “audacious” early leadership; trust – grounded in an organisational culture of self-awareness; and momentum, because too often projects proceed at the speed of the slowest partner.
What we termed ‘selfless’ behaviour captures something of the singular contribution that the best districts make to partnership working. In a sense, there are winners and losers in all collaborative projects, but we observed that many of the partnerships we reviewed had at least one partner that seemed to put in much more than it could ever reasonably get out in measureable benefits. It is easy for a team based in academia to wrap complex ideas in obscure language, but we use the term ‘selfless’ to describe this attribute and we explored why it seems more often to be exhibited by districts.
In a way, the answer is obvious: for districts, selflessness is actually role-appropriate behaviour. Districts represent local communities and geographies and so minding their interests in collaborative projects must be the right behaviour.
As with all such attributes, there is a flip-side to selflessness, represented by the charge of parochialism that we heard levelled at a few districts, especially by business. Districts should reflect that solely being champions of the local can have downsides, particularly in devolutionary times, where a wide range of interests have to be reconciled for the common good.
One of INLOGOV’s roles is to ensure that relevant research is made available to local government, so the study draws on a considerable body of academic material on partnership working to highlight that individuals who will be good at collaborative working can too often be hidden away in vertical structures. “Boundary spanners” and “collaborative champions” are needed in every partnership and need to be identified, developed and encouraged.
We suggest that the national local government bodies - the LGA, CCN and DCN - can do much more to model good collaborative practice. The joint summit was a good start but there’s always more to do.
Anthony Mason, senior associate, Inlogov, University of Birmingham