Catherine Staite reflects on the need for 21st century partnerships in Birmingham

Catherine Staite, Director, INLOGOV

Working in partnership in the public sector has never been easy.  Diversity in size, ambition, buying power, influence and democratic legitimacy, create real challenges for partnerships. The imposition by central government of one size fits all models of partnership as a means of control didn’t help. Add the problems that arise from personality clashes and petty rivalries and its easy to see how partnerships came to be described as  ‘mutual loathing in search of funding’.

Of course it wasn’t all bad. Some LSPs developed a strong collective vision for their area and some LEPs can claim significant achievements. Many partnerships demonstrated that when you involve the right people, who behave in the right way, you can establish relationships of trust that will weather challenges. That is helpful as that experience is now providing the foundations for different sorts of partnership.

The role of councils within partnerships has always been contested.  Many councils espoused the view that their democratic mandate placed them in a pre-eminent position and they were leaders by right. It was the duty of partners to do their bidding. Many of their partners compounded this problem by  too passive, assuming that it was the responsibility of the council to provide everything from the vision to the lunch.

Partnerships in Birmingham have always been challenging. The monolithic nature of the council and the diversity of the city have created a long running battle for control of leadership space that has damaged relationships to the detriment of residents.  Many of the problems were highlighted in the Kerslake Report and resolving them is now one of the top priorities of the both the government appointed Birmingham Improvement Panel and the council itself.

The idea of co-production – harnessing the capacity of people to come together to achieve positive change – has been around for many years. Birmingham has many inspiring and energetic people who don’t buy into a cynical and defeatist narrative about Birmingham being too big to manage.  They are willing to give their time and energy to work together, with but not for the council, to create a positive narrative about Birmingham, its people and its future.  Birmingham Partners has a small informal steering group which is working hard to create a self-sustaining network of diverse functional partnerships and communities of interest  – thereby making  itself redundant.  The role of the steering group is to facilitate, not control, discussions about an agenda for change.  Practical support for meetings, public events and social media is provided by the University of Birmingham, Birmingham City University and Aston University.

It’s not easy for the council to let go of control. Real change is slow and messy and they are under pressure to deliver demonstrable improvements quickly.  There are lots of views about what needs to happen next.  The council will therefore always have a pivotal role, holding the ring and ultimately making the very difficult choices forced on them by austerity.  Widening engagement and participation in those debates will both strengthen the legitimacy of those choices and mitigate their negative impact. Things can only get better – and they will.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

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