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
Watch the video, ‘Reviewing inter-agency work’, below which shows a meeting between Denise Godfrey, a youth officer with Wandsworth Youth Service whom you have seen previously, and Paul Howard, who works for the Youth Offending Team (YOT). They are meeting to review some joint work between the two agencies and admit that some conflict has arisen from trying to work together, but there have also been some successful outcomes for their partnership.
As you are watching the video, make a note of your response to each of the following questions:
- What joint working have they been involved in over the past 18 months?
- What have been some of the positive outcomes for the young people they have been working with?
- What does Paul say have been some of the advantages of working in a youth centre, as opposed to another venue – for example, one owned or managed by the YOT?
- Each agency would say that it ‘works with young people’, but they work in different ways and have different aims. Can you identify some of the differences between them? To what extent do you think that these differences have led to conflict?
- Why do they think it has been important to review and evaluate the partnership?
From watching the video, we can see that a number of difficulties and challenges have arisen as the two agencies have tried to work together. Paul works specifically with young people who have been offending and are ‘on orders’, a very particular ‘target group’ of young people. His work is focused on trying to reduce the risk of them offending again; he wants the young people to engage with specific activities that are intended to achieve this outcome.
As a youth worker, Denise’s work is informed by principles of voluntary engagement. She wants young people to be able to access the opportunities and resources that the youth centre can offer, including providing a space where different groups of young people can mix. But she also has targets that she needs to meet, including targets for the numbers of young people using the youth centre.
It seems that there has also been some interpersonal conflict which has sometimes made working together difficult. Poor interpersonal relationships and conflicts between individuals and groups may be a feature of some partnerships, and can create a significant barrier to effective partnership working. Put simply, if people get on together in partnerships, they are more likely to try to overcome some of the other barriers that might make it difficult to work together. Conversely, poor interpersonal relationships and conflict between particular individuals or groups can be powerful forces that undermine other factors that might be encouraging and supporting collaboration. As Gilbert (2005) observes:
The essential issue for partnerships, of course, is that it is based on relationships, both personal, professional and organisational. To gain partnership outcomes you have to work as partners – a simple truth which unfortunately escapes many people.
Despite the difficulties and challenges, Paul and Denise both remain positive about the benefits of working together. Paul can see the benefits of working in a youth centre, including encouraging young people he is working with to become involved with more constructive activities in their communities and to build up positive relationships with youth workers. Denise is pleased that one young woman, who was originally involved in a YOT project, has since started to come to the centre independently and become involved in youth work. Both comment on the usefulness of reviewing the way they have been working together, in part because it has helped to ‘bring to a closure’ some of the conflict between them and because it has reminded each of them of some of the positive outcomes of the partnership.
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.