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Partnerships and networks in work with young people
Partnerships and networks in work with young people

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1.1 Definitions and metaphors

Dictionary definitions of ‘partner’ make reference to partners in a business, a marriage (or established cohabiting relationship) or in a dance.

Metaphors can be useful in exploring things from different angles. Your possible initial impressions of partnership might be of a formal, contractual undertaking, where people are looking for competitive advantage: a cosy, trusting relationship based on give and take; or of a well-coordinated precision – a dance in which each partner knows the complementary steps (though there is always the risk of treading on each other’s toes).

You might develop these metaphors further. For example, there are different kinds of dance – each with different implications. Partners might be mainly dancing alone, or they might be dancing in a group, communicating and picking up new steps from each other – just as some partnerships consist mainly of individuals, within two or more agencies, sharing experiences in an informal way, sparking ideas off each other and perhaps helping each other out from time to time. Dancers may be coordinating their movements with others, as partners might establish a pattern and a set of ‘rules’ that govern their work. Alternatively, a caller might be keeping them in step; a concern expressed by some small voluntary organisations is that they have to dance to the tune called by a larger organisation with more ‘clout’. People might also be moving in and out of the dance, just as partners move in and out of partnerships and have different levels of commitment that may vary with time.

Developing the metaphor of partnership as a marriage, marriage may be a state that is freely entered into, where people make a very conscious choice to be together and are willing to work through any difficulties they might encounter. The marriage might be one of convenience, which each partner has entered into willingly with a view to what they will each get out of the relationship. Or it might have arisen ‘because one agency believes it has something to gain by having influence over the other. This is a model of partnership on the basis of “putting mutual loathing aside to get your hands on the money” (Alex Scott-Samuel …) rather than one that leads to shared benefit’ (Miller et al., 2010, p. 42).

Alternatively, the marriage might be the result of other people’s decisions, in the same way that partnerships might be the result of decisions made outside organisations; for example, because of government edict. Partners may be obliged to participate with other partners who have very different values, priorities and ways of working.

We hope that these metaphors help to highlight particular dimensions of partnerships: the extent to which partners are working in parallel or in an integrated fashion; the level of formality in the agreements between them; the levels of risk and reward for all involved; the extent to which the partners are committed to the relationship and for what ends; whether there is a clear leader or whether decision making is truly collaborative; the stages that the relationship might go through; and the feelings that accompany any work with people.

We return to the different dimensions of partnership later in this section. First, though, we ask you to consider your own understanding of ‘partnership’, based on your experience of practice.

Activity 1: Definitions and characteristics of ‘partnership’

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes
  1. What does the term ‘partnership’ mean to you? Write down the first impressions that come into your mind when you think of the term ‘partnership’.
  2. Think of a piece of partnership working that you are familiar with – either personally or something that you have heard about or read about. What makes you call it partnership? Use a table similar to Table 1 below to jot down your reflections. We have included an example to get you started.
Table 1: The characteristics of partnership
Your partnersWhat makes you call it a ‘partnership’?
Example: I work with the police and the Neighbourhood Support Team.Example: We have regular meetings to talk about young people and issues affecting them and their behaviour – although their agenda is often very different from mine.
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First impressions of partnership are likely to fall somewhere on a spectrum from cooperation, harmony and mutual respect at one end, to competition, conflict and power struggles at the other.

Your impressions may well have affected the way you defined partnership, whether you see it as something that is based on cooperation, mutual trust and respect for different people’s contributions, or something that is characterised by more negative attitudes and behaviour – for example, agencies vying for influence and resources.

For the purposes of this course, we have defined partnership working as:

Two or more parties working together towards a common goal, in a way that attempts to overcome boundaries between services; provide a coordinated response to the needs of young people; involve a fair allocation of risk, resources and benefits; and provide added value.

This is what Huxham (1996) called ‘collaborative advantage’ (deliberately intended to contrast with the more familiar term ‘competitive advantage’) in which:

  • something is produced or achieved which no organisation could have achieved on its own
  • each participant is able to achieve some of their objectives more successfully through collaboration than by working on their own.

You have now thought about definitions of partnership in general. In your experience of practice, and in your reading about practice, you may have come across a range of terms that are used to describe the way in which different organisations and agencies, and practitioners from different professional backgrounds, collaborate and work together. It is important to understand the potential significance of different terms.