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?
Transcript: Wandsworth Youth Service: Reviewing inter-agency work
DENISE GODFREY: Paul, can you just kind of remind me what the purpose of reparation is, as I understand that that's why the young people come here?
PAUL HOWARD: Reparation is where we look for young people to repair the harm done by their crimes within the community.
DENISE GODFREY: I thought this afternoon we'd spend a little bit of time evaluating the work that's been going on at the Resource Centre that's been delivered by the Offending Team and the work that we've done together. Maybe if we start with the poster project.
PAUL HOWARD: Yeah, we came down here to use the poster project, because the TRC was a good resource that had all the equipment we needed to produce the work we wanted with our young people within the poster project, where we get young people to consider their offence and then produce a visible idea of why they've committed the offence or the impact that that offence has had on themselves, maybe their family, and the community as a large.
DENISE GODFREY: We've stopped that particular project, or it's come to an end, so if we think about whether it was successful or unsuccessful, what the issues were that impacted on it.
PAUL HOWARD: I believe that the idea to bring it here was a good idea. Part of the problems we face by bringing young people involved in the youth justice system, the problem we might have had would be that there would be other young people surrounding them doing their own thing, which is really good, but our young people needed to be focused on what they wanted to achieve and that could be really distracting, and therefore, impacted on the work we really wanted to do. So the idea to pull the project after discussions with yourself was really valid.
DENISE GODFREY: Possibly we'd have to consider doing that outside of our normal opening hours.
PAUL HOWARD: I would think so, yeah. I would feel more comfortable with our young people being actually focused on the work they need to achieve.
DENISE GODFREY: Now if we move on then to think about the bike project. Now that does go on during the same time that the centre's open, so what's, what's making that different?
PAUL HOWARD: We work in another part of the building where we do the work which involves refurbishing bikes given to us by the community and by the police.
DENISE GODFREY: But is there any time maybe that actually the young people come into contact with the project other than when they're in there doing the bikes?
PAUL HOWARD: One of the things, again, one of the bonuses I feel about working with the TRC with yourselves is the young people who are involved in the youth justice system are quite often disengaged from the community and can often feel quite isolated. So by having the project here, we have that natural crossover where people can arrive early and are able to access other provision that you provide, such as the computers. They get information about drama projects, music workshops, so they're able to access. So therefore, there is that crossover and by working with your staff, they can also build up positive relationships with youth workers and other agencies. So I know that young people who are involved with me have certainly come on and come on to summer scheme programmes, have certainly take part in the music workshops and the computers.
DENISE GODFREY: Right, is there any other projects you might like to think about running from here?
PAUL HOWARD: We've run one other one if you remember, which is the cooking programme, where we have got young people to do cooking here where we've taken the goods on to disabled project within the community, so a real good positive link again where there...
DENISE GODFREY: ... Certainly, there was a spin off from there, because the young woman brings herself here independently now.
PAUL HOWARD: Excellent. That's one of our goals.
DENISE GODFREY: I feel overall the meeting went really well. It was a, it was a good chance just to reflect and think about the work that we've done together.
Initially early on in the project, there had been some conflict between myself and Paul around the issue of the poster project and of the young people using the room. And, you know, Paul was quite certain that he didn't want to have the young people in the room as much as I was certain that I did want to have the young people in the room, because I've got to look at resources and the use of resources. And should I open that room just for his young people during an evening session, it would be an awful draw on my resources at the Resource Centre in terms of hours of, of workers and also my returns at the end of the month that said there was only x number of young people in the Resource Centre. I was also dead keen, very, very keen, that the young people that came in who were on orders had an opportunity to get a real feel for what was happening in youth work, and in particular, what was going on in this centre.
So actually spending some time now some way down the line, it was quite good to be able to reflect on it, think about the project, and for me to recognise, well, actually that bit of the project didn't work, however, the rest of the project did and, and it was quite nice. So it brought to a closure in a way some of the issues that we'd had in the past, some of the confrontation between myself and that particular worker.
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.