2.6.6 Conflicts and differences in power
The rhetoric of partnership working often emphasises sharing, cooperation and collaboration; the coming together of different agencies prepared to put aside their differences for the greater good of service users and communities. The reality of partnership may be very different. Partnerships can also involve conflicts and struggles for power – particularly when there are significant differences in the partners’ size, the resources they have available and their culture. Their past history of relationships between different agencies may also have an impact. Where relationships have been positive in the past, this bodes well for partnership working. Where there is a history of poor collaboration and mistrust, the task is likely to be more difficult.
Gilchrist (2007) points out that there is often informal wheeling and dealing between some partners, outside the formal partnership meetings, which excludes others from the decision-making process. Some agencies have more ‘clout’ than others. Those with power may be reluctant to relinquish it. What appears to be consensus may, in reality, reflect the dominance of the most powerful agency. Sources of formal power are complicated since a manager in one agency has no formal authority over practitioners in another agency.
For Balloch and Taylor, issues of power present the greatest challenge for partnership working, but a challenge that needs to be addressed: ‘If partnership does not address issues of power, it will remain symbolic rather than real’ (Balloch and Taylor, 2001, p. 284).
Activity 6: Exploring some challenges of partnership working
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Given the long list of difficulties you might come up against, you might feel, as one practitioner we interviewed said, ‘Sometimes partnerships can be more hassle than they’re worth.’ Despite the challenges, however, we would argue that it is worth persevering and trying to find effective ways of working with others – if for no other reason than the reality that partnership working is unlikely to go away.
As Sullivan and Skelcher (2002) conclude:
The powerful momentum for collaboration is unlikely to be diminished, despite the problems of accountability, the complexities of the organisational relationships which emerge and the time and energy necessary to maintain these relationships at an organisational and individual level. The state is joining up with a vengeance.
Now that you are familiar with some of the benefits and pitfalls of partnership working, you should be better placed for thinking about the ways in which leaders – formal and informal – can maximise the potential benefits and deal with the difficulties. This is the focus of Section 3.